According to the 1951 Convention on the Status of Refugees, a refugee is a person who, “owing to well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable, or owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country; or who, not having a nationality and being outside the country of his former habitual residence as a result of such events, is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to return to it.”

Refugees are different from internally displaced people who, while forcibly displaced from their homes do not choose or cannot cross an international border. They are also different from migrants who choose to travel to another country for work, education or to reunite with family.

Note: The phrase “climate refugee” is often used to refer to people who are (usually permanently) displaced from their homes due to climate change and/or the impact of a climate-related natural disaster. If these individuals do not cross an international border, they are more properly referred to as “internally displaced people” and are covered in our IDP Issue Insight. Even if they do cross an international border, they are unlikely to receive refugee status unless they can also show that they have a well-founded fear of persecution on one of the protected grounds.

According to UNCHR – The UN Refugee Agency, in 2018, there were 70.8 million people who were “were forcibly displaced worldwide as a result of persecution, conflict, violence, or human rights violations.” This is an increase of 2.3 million from 2017.Of these, 25.9 million were refugees; 20.4 million were refugees under the protection of UNCHR and 5.5 million were Palestinian refugees under the protection of The United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA). Over half of all refugees are under the age of 18.

UNHCR stated that 67 percent of refugees came from five countries: Syrian Arab Republic (6.7 million), Afghanistan (2.7 million), South Sudan (2.3 million), Myanmar/Burma (1.1 million) and Somalia (0.9 million). UNHCR also noted that the movement of people out of Venezuela in 2018 began to resemble the characteristics of refugees and by the end of 2018 there were 3.4 million people who had left Venezuela as refugees or asylum seekers. For more information see CDP’s Venezuelan Humanitarian and Refugee Crisis disaster profile.

Refugees often do not travel far; 80 percent are residing in countries that border their home country. The countries hosting the most refugees in 2018 were: Turkey (3.7 million), Pakistan (1.4 million), Uganda (1.2 million), Sudan (1.1 million) and Germany (1.1 million). Many of these host countries need support, as do the refugees themselves.

In December 2018, after two years of consultation led by the UNHCR, the Global Compact on Refugees was affirmed by the UN General Assembly. While 181 countries voted in favor, Hungary and the United States voted against it and the Dominican Republic, Eritrea and Libya abstained. According to UNHCR, the Global Compact on Refugees is “a framework for more predictable and equitable responsibility-sharing, recognizing that a sustainable solution to refugee situations cannot be achieved without international cooperation. It provides a blueprint for governments, international organizations, and other stakeholders to ensure that host communities get the support they need and that refugees can lead productive lives. It constitutes a unique opportunity to transform the way the world responds to refugee situations, benefiting both refugees and the communities that host them. Its four key objectives are to: ease the pressures on host countries; enhance refugee self-reliance; expand access to third-country solutions; [and] support conditions in countries of origin for return in safety and dignity.”

Key Facts

  • If conflict is involved, humanitarian assistance may need to remain fluid. This means donors need to be more flexible since they will likely need to put more trust in partnering nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) than they are accustomed to doing. Programs may be operating remotely, and therefore may be less transparent.
  • Roughly three of four people who are displaced are women and dependent children. As a result, issues such as health care, nutrition and education must remain at the forefront.
  • According to the Brookings Institution, the average length of displacement for a refugee is between 10 and 26 years. This occurs when the causes of displacement have not been addressed (i.e., the conflict and human rights abuses persist) or the conditions at home do not allow for return. At the same time, host and third countries are reluctant to provide full rights to the refugees. Better solutions are required to more efficiently and quickly move people out of refugee status.
  • Most refugees are not living in camps but are living in protracted displacement in a community. UNHCR defines “protracted displacement” as five years or more. Most refugees are in urban areas, often living in overcrowded conditions, among other highly vulnerable and poor populations. This requires that the needs of host communities and refugees be considered in tandem.
  • There are three traditional solutions for refugees: return, resettlement and local integration. These options are only used for about three percent of refugees annually. Host countries should be encouraged and supported to allow refugees to work, integrate them into local services including health and education, assist them to find better housing etc., even if they are not yet prepared to grant citizenship.
  • Third country integration needs to be considered as a viable solution whenever possible. Host countries and wealthy countries can be part of the solution by welcoming large numbers of immigrants, as Canada did for Syrian refugees, bringing in 25,000 refugees in 100 days. A third country solution includes resettling more refugees and providing support to both refugees and local host communities.
  • “Safe” third county agreements may prevent asylum seekers from reaching a place in which they can find safety as refugees. An asylum seeker is someone who is looking for international protection; all refugees are initially asylum seekers. A safe third country agreement requires an asylum seeker to stay in the first country where they arrive that may be able to provide sanctuary. So, an asylum seeker from Guatemala is required to apply for sanctuary in Mexico instead of proceeding to the United States.

How to Help

  • Recognize that not all refugee situations are related to political issues. People can become refugees because of their race, religion, ethnicity or sexual orientation. As a funder, it may still be possible to be involved in providing humanitarian assistance without “taking sides” in the conflict. In any event, humanitarian aid can be provided impartially and can be seen as nonpolitical.
  • Continue to put pressure on countries of origin to create conditions conducive for return. This includes: ending conflicts, restoring rights, reducing corruption, improving economic opportunities, etc.
  • Fund organizations working to provide immediate, short-term relief needs. Funders can support international NGOs working to provide food, WASH (water, sanitation and hygiene), shelter, basic household items and cash assistance to arriving refugees.
  • Fund resettlement needs. A donor can address the social needs as refugees are resettled or receive asylum status. These needs will include cash assistance, education (particularly considering some children have been out of school for two years or more), learning a new language, mental health and psychosocial support services to address trauma issues. Funding this component of recovery allows refugees to achieve independent status in their host country and integrates them into their new community.
  • Support long-term needs in this crisis. It is unlikely that the swell of refugees will disappear. Donors should look for ways to fund organizations working to improve reception centers and refugee sponsorship programs. Investments to boost the internal capacity of host nations to handle the refugee flow are also vital.
  • Support education programs that will prepare the next generation for working on humanitarian issues. Foundationally, build compassion among youth for those who are different from them. And, recognize that as the challenges grow, so too must the skills and expertise of humanitarian workers—many of whom are facing life-threatening situations in assisting and protecting refugees and IDPs.
  • Strengthen assistance to refugees within the U.S. Each year the U.S. admits thousands of refugees who are escaping conflict, although this number has decreased in recent years. Funders can play an important role in helping them integrate into local communities. Public information and education could be strengthened to build support for more effective refugee policies.
  • Increase understanding of land tenure issues and how they affect those displaced. The restoration of land and property rights, for example, is a key component of long-term recovery.
  • Give to the CDP Global Recovery Fund, our exclusive fund for international disasters. This fund provides an efficient, flexible solution to expedite a donation to address medium- to long-term recovery at sudden on-set disasters or protracted humanitarian emergencies.

What Funders Are Doing

  • The CDP Global Refugee Crisis Fund distributed six grants totaling $486,441 in 2016 and 2017. The Fund focused on capacity-building efforts to protect people forcibly displaced within Syria. It was used to strengthen community-based protection initiatives for women and adolescents struggling through the ongoing conflict, as well as programs to improve adolescents’ psychological well-being through leadership training, education services and trauma support. The majority of these grants are listed in the Internally Displaced People Issue Insight; one grant is listed below.
  • CDP received a designated gift in 2015 to support the International Rescue Committee’s programs in Europe. The purpose of this grant was to create sustainable and dignified conditions for refugees fleeing to Europe, with a particular focus on those arriving in Greece.
  • American Jewish World Service gave a $50,000 grant in 2019 to Rural Initiative for Community Empowerment-West Nile to support social cohesion and conflict transformation among South Sudanese refugees and Ugandan host communities in the Omugo zone in Rhino Refugee Camp in northern Uganda.
  • Ford Foundation gave three grants in 2018 to support Syrian refugees in Jordan. A $450,000 grant was given to Kiron Open Higher Education to support digital education for Syrian refugees and host communities in Jordan. The University of Geneva received a $400,000 grant to strengthen a model for formal and non-formal higher education using blended learning for Syrian refugees in Jordan. Beyond Conflict received a $300,000 grant for the development of resources for Field Guide for Barefoot Psychologists that uses the science of stress, trauma and plasticity to empower young refugees affected by the Syrian conflict.

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