Have you lived in many different places in your life? What was it like to move? Was it stressful, difficult, or challenging to start a new life in a new place? What if you risked being killed or starving to death if you had stayed where you were? What if you had to leave everything you own behind and undertake a dangerous journey to a place that may not even welcome you? Many refugees face these issues. In this explanation, we will explore the challenges refugees face. 

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Table of contents

    Refugees definition

    The United Nations High Commission on Refugees (UNHCR) defines refugees as:

    People who have fled war, violence, conflict, or persecution and have crossed an international border to find safety in another country.1

    Whereas the 1951 refugee convention describes a refugee as:

    Someone who is unable or unwilling to return to their country of origin owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion.2

    While many may fit this definition, actually being accepted into a country as a refugee can be a different story.

    However, just because someone has not yet been granted refugee status does not mean they are not a refugee in practice. In fact, many refugees who have not been granted asylum status or any type of residency find themselves in dire situations—being in a limbo of not being able to work, not having full rights and protections, yet also not wanting to go back to where their countries of origin due to concerns over safety or persecution.

    The UNHCR estimates that as of June 2022, there are 26.3 million refugees in the world, part of a total of 101.1 million forcibly displaced people.3 A majority of these forcibly displaced people are internally displaced people, suggesting that for many involved in a crisis, the ability to leave their country may not even be an option: only a small proportion of people affected by a crisis can cross international borders. However, this may also suggest that many forcibly displaced people do not want to leave their home country (perhaps for cultural reasons) and would instead prefer to move to safety within it.

    Refugees causes

    Things like conflicts, natural disasters, and severe political oppression can cause refugee crises.

    Natural disasters are becoming more common in the world due to climate change. Natural disasters, especially floods and droughts, can force widespread migration upon the poorest and most vulnerable people in the world as developing countries do not have the capacity to cope with more and more inconsistent rainy seasons or more erratic storms. This is especially prevalent in places where a large portion of the population is dependent on subsistence farming for their livelihoods. The horn of Africa has been experiencing major drought over the last several years, causing thousands to flee.

    Conflict might be what first comes to mind when thinking of refugees, as conflict can often create large numbers of refugees in a short period of time. Insurgency, civil war, and conventional wars all often cause large-scale migration and large numbers of refugees escaping violence. Such examples could be the insurgencies in west Africa, the Syrian Civil War, and the Russian-Ukrainian War, which have all caused a massive influx of refugees to neighboring countries. As a result of the Syrian Civil War, millions of refugees live in neighboring countries.

    The UNHCR estimates that 70% of Syrian refugees live in poverty. Roughly 800-900 thousand of these refugees are children who lack access to education.4

    Another major cause of refugees is political oppression. This oppression can be related to religion or ethnicity, or along other social and/or economic lines. In extreme cases, political oppression can threaten people's safety and force them to leave as refugees. The Rohingyas of Myanmar have been affected by this in recent years as persecution and genocide against Rohingyas have led to hundreds of thousands fleeing to neighboring Bangladesh. Stateless people often face persecution on both sides of a border.

    Refugees Rohinya Refugees StudySmarterFig. 1 - Rohingya Refugees.

    Refugees Problems

    The UNHCR states that 83% of refugees worldwide reside in developing countries. This can limit access to aid, as developing countries may not have the infrastructure needed to accommodate an unplanned or sudden influx of people.5

    Refugees are forced migrants, meaning they have not left a place voluntarily or by their own choice. This often creates issues as many refugees are unprepared to leave their homes, cannot take all their belongings, and cannot afford to move and live in a new country.

    This not only often leads to poor quality of life in countries of destination but also creates vulnerability for people to be taken advantage of by bad actors such as human traffickers. While attempting to get to a better destination, human smugglers and kidnappers often take advantage of desperate refugees fleeing conflict or persecution with little money and supplies, as has been recorded numerous times in Bangladesh with Rohingyas from Myanmar.6

    Such displacements of people, especially in large numbers, can have detrimental impacts on the country people have been displaced from when the conflict subsides. Many working-aged or young people will have left the country, and although many often return, many also start new lives elsewhere, leading to a massive Brain Drain and loss of economic potential in a country.

    As we said earlier, a large influx of refugees to a country can create issues as many countries simply do not have the capacity and infrastructure necessary to absorb a rapid population increase. This can leave many refugees with inadequate shelter and living standards or in refugee camps for long periods of time. This also can strain a country's resources which can cause social resistance and resentment towards refugees by the local population.

    Refugees Refugee Camp StudySmarterFig. 2 - Refugee Camp.

    Refugees may not receive refugee status when they arrive in a country, leaving them in a limbo state where they cannot work or go to school but also do not want to go back to their own country. Check out our explanation on Forced Migration for more information.

    Refugees in the US

    The United States has more migrants than any other country in the world, but refugees specifically are not as common in the US as they are in countries closer to major conflicts. This conforms with Ravienstein's laws of migration—people will often go the shortest distance they can to change their circumstances.

    Refugees US Refugee Admission StudySmarterFig. 3 - US refugee admissions between 1975 and 2019

    However, many refugees still come to the United States in search of better human rights or to escape violence, often from countries in Central America or elsewhere. The United States accepted eleven thousand refugees in 2021.5

    Refugees types

    Migrants can be refugees, but migrants encompass a broader definition of people. Migrants might be anyone leaving their home to move to a new place, forced, voluntarily, internationally, or within the same country. In other words, a refugee is a type of migrant, but not all migrants are refugees.

    Asylum seekers are refugees seeking legal refugee status in a foreign country. Asylum seekers claim asylum upon entering a country in order to seek political protection. However, it may be some time before an asylum seeker is granted refugee status, which can mean that their rights and ability to do things such as work or attend school could be limited depending on the country. According to the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, all people have the right to seek asylum, however, each country has there own set of laws regarding migrants and refugees. These unique conditions and laws determine the acceptance of asylum seekers as refugees.

    Resettled people are refugees that have been accepted into a new country, possessing full rights and protections of the state. This is the final stage at which refugees attain full resettlement status. Meaning that a country has accepted them and they are on a path to permanent residency in the country.

    There are millions of people in the world who are not citizens of any country. These people are known as stateless people. There are some persecuted ethnic groups or people born in remote regions of countries whose presence may be unknown to the governments of the country they are in. Being stateless can create difficulties in day-to-day life as, on paper, stateless people do not exist. Stateless people may have limited rights and protection in a country, are unable to obtain legitimate employment, and may be unable to receive medical care. Stateless people often cannot become legal refugees because they cannot cross international borders due to not having passports. This completely rules out the ability of stateless people to voluntarily migrate to a new country for better opportunities or to escape persecution. Those stateless people who are able to cross international borders and become refugees often are forgotten or not able to acquire citizenship in the country they arrive.

    In Myanmar, the Rohingya people have not been granted citizenship of the country, leaving them with no rights or any ability to do things such as seek justice, receive an education, or get medical care. This can cause people to be in a grey area regarding refugee status if they do make it abroad because these people are not technically forsaking one country for another if they were stateless to begin with. There is no documentation to prove that these people exist. They won't appear in national records or censuses. They do not have an address, a national identification number, or anything to identify them. It is a problem the world often cannot see.

    Refugees - Key takeaways

    • Refugees are forced migrants that have crossed an international border.
    • Refugees may be fleeing things like conflicts, natural disasters, or severe political oppression.
    • Refugees may seek refugee status in a country, but they are still refugees if they have not been granted refugee status.
    • Different countries will have different treatment and classifications for what qualifies a person as a refugee.


    1. UNHCR. “What is a Refugee?” (No Date)
    2. UNHCR. “Convention and Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees.” (No date)
    3. UNHCR. “Refugee Data Finder.” (No Date)
    4. UNHCR. “Syria Refugee Crisis Explained.” (No Date)
    5. UNHCR “US Resettlement Facts.” July 2022.
    6. The Economist “The most persecuted people on Earth?” 13, June 2015.
    7. Fig. 2: Refugee Camp. ( by Julien Harneis ( is licensed by CC BY-SA 1.0 (
    8. UNHCR “Refugee Status Determination.”,international%2C%20regional%20or%20national%20law. (No Date)
    Frequently Asked Questions about Refugees

    What are examples of refugees? 

    An example of a refugee may be a person who fled Syria due to the civil war. They left Syria for their own safety and thus were forcibly displaced from their country. They may make it to a neighboring country or search for a better life somewhere in Europe and claim asylum in there new destination thus starting the formal process of obtaining refugee status and settling in a new country. 

    What causes a person to be a refugee? 

    A person may become a refugee by being forced to migrate from one country to seek protection from another country. 

    What country has the most refugees? 

    Turkey has the most refugees in the world as of 2022, with 3.7 million. 

    What problems do refugees face? 

    Refugees face problems like a lack of resources, human traffickers, limited rights and protections, and social resistance in their destination. 

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    Which of the following circumstances might create refugees?

    What are some countries many refugees have originated from in recent years?

    What might stateless people not be able to do due to a lack of citizenship?


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