Why do People Become Refugees?

By the end of 2020, 82.4 million individuals were forcibly displaced, including 26.4 million refugees worldwide as a result of persecution, conflict, violence, or human rights violations. This is an increase of 2.9 million people over the previous year, leaving the forcibly displaced population at a record high.

South Sudanese refugee Nyakoun with her one-year-old son, Thujin. Photo by Jennifer Nolan, Concern.

A refugee is a person who has fled their own country because they are at risk of serious human rights violations and persecution if they stay there. The risks to their safety and life were so great that they felt they had no choice but to leave and seek safety outside their country because their own government cannot or will not protect them from those dangers. Five countries constitute 68% of those displaced: Syria, Venezuela, Afghanistan, South Sudan and Myanmar. Five countries host 39% of those displaced: Turkey, Colombia, Pakistan, Uganda, and Germany. The focus has often been on where refugees are running to and from, rather than why they are running in the first place.


Persecution is currently the most common reason for a person to become a refugee. Persecution can take many forms, including racial, political, religious, or national, and it occurs when human rights violations or threats are sustained or systematic and governments either fail to protect their citizens or, in some cases, actively participate in the violations. Examples of persecution include assassination, torture, violence including sexual violence, arbitrary arrest, false imprisonment, and serious and ongoing forms of discrimination. Men and boys are often killed, imprisoned or forced to fight in conflicts. Women and girls also face particular forms of abuse because of their gender. They are often targeted for sexual abuse, rape, forcible impregnation, sexual slavery, and forced prostitution.

Rohingya refugees help each other cross the Bangladesh-Myanmar border. Photo by Mohammad Ponir Hossain


War, like persecution, is a major factor in the refugee crisis. Most people have been displaced due to either a direct or indirect result of a war. The first major international refugee crisis happened in the 20th century when more than 50 million people were displaced due to the Second World War. Currently, the largest group of refugees in the world are fleeing the decade-long civil conflict in Syria, which has killed 400,000 Syrians, displaced 6.6 million internally, and forced another 6.6 million to seek refuge, primarily in Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq, Egypt, and Turkey. Prior to Syria, refugees fled wars in Iraq and Afghanistan in droves from the 1980s to the 2000s. Afghanistan had the largest number of refugees of any country in the world for more than two decades between 1981 and 2013.

Syrian refugees seeking asylum in the United States. Photo via BBC News/Getty Images.


The U.N. has declared the global hunger emergency the biggest humanitarian crisis since 1945. In 2020, more than 2.3 billion people lacked year-round access to adequate food; this indicator — known as the prevalence of moderate or severe food insecurity — leaped in one year as much as the preceding five combined. It’s estimated that 20 million people in four North African and Middle Eastern countries — Somalia, South Sudan, Nigeria, and Yemen — are facing extreme drought, and many of these individuals are becoming refugees, forced from their homelands due to drought as well as corruption and political instability that forces hunger displacement.

A family in Yemen living in famine conditions after fleeing war. Photo by Sami Jassar.

Climate Change

In 2020 alone, it was estimated that around 16.1 million people were displaced due to climate-related reasons including storms, cyclones, floods, droughts, wildfires, and landslides. While most of the displacement caused by these events is internal, they are now more frequently causing people to cross borders. UNHCR recognizes climate change as a major factor for the refugee crisis, and the UN General Assembly in December 2018 directly addresses this growing concern, stating that “climate, environmental degradation, and natural disasters increasingly interact with the drivers of refugee movements.” Climate change is further driving displacement, and making it even more difficult for refugees who have already been forced to flee.

Philippine citizens after Typhoon Vamco flooded their village. Photo by Ezra Acayan.


Though each of these circumstances is, themselves, major international challenges, each of the factors that cause refugees to leave their homelands, in turn, cause and exacerbate each other in a vicious cycle. In order to truly understand the global refugee crisis, as well as that of any given country, the unique relationship between these listed factors, as well as others, must be dialectically analyzed.




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