Although refugees have been a constant and accepted part of human migration for centuries, the development of the nation-state and fixed borders in the 19th century caused countries to shun refugees and turn them into international pariahs. In the past, groups of people facing religious or racial persecution would often move to a more tolerant region. Today, political persecution is a major cause of out-migration of refugees, and the international goal is to repatriate refugees as soon as conditions in their home country become stable.
According to the United Nations, a refugee is a person who flees their home country due to a "well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion."
There are an estimated 11-12 million refugees in the world today. This is a dramatic increase since the mid-1970s when there were less than 3 million refugees worldwide. However, it is a decrease since 1992, when the refugee population was nearly 18 million high due to the Balkan conflicts.
The end of the Cold War and the end of regimes that kept social order led to the dissolution of countries and changes in politics, which subsequently led to unbridled persecution and a huge increase in the number of refugees.
When a person or family decides to leave their home country and seek asylum elsewhere, they generally travel to the closest safe area possible. Thus, while the world's largest source countries for refugees include Afghanistan, Iraq, and Sierra Leone, some of the countries hosting the most refugees include countries like Pakistan, Syria, Jordan, Iran, and Guinea. Approximately 70% of the world refugee population is in Africa and the Middle East.
In 1994, Rwandan refugees flooded into Burundi, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Tanzania to escape the genocide and terror in their country. In 1979, when the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan, Afghanis fled to Iran and Pakistan. Today, refugees from Iraq migrate to Syria or Jordan.
Internally Displaced Persons
In addition to refugees, there's a category of displaced people known as "internally displaced persons" who are not officially refugees because they have not left their own country but are refugee-like inasmuch as they have been displaced by persecution or armed conflict within their own country. The leading countries of internally displaced persons include Sudan, Angola, Myanmar, Turkey, and Iraq. Refugee organizations estimate that there are between 12-24 million IDP's worldwide. Some consider the hundreds of thousands of evacuees from Hurricane Katrina in 2005 as internally displaced persons.
History of Major Refugee Movements
Major geopolitical transitions have caused some of the largest refugee migrations in the twentieth century. The Russian Revolution of 1917 caused approximately 1.5 million Russians who opposed communism to flee. One million Armenians fled Turkey between 1915-1923 to escape persecution and genocide. Following the establishment of the People's Republic of China in 1949, two million Chinese fled to Taiwan and Hong Kong. The world's largest population transfer in history occurred in 1947 when 18 million Hindus from Pakistan and Muslims from India were moved between newly the created countries of Pakistan and India. Approximately 3.7 million East Germans fled to West Germany between 1945 and 1961, when the Berlin Wall was constructed.
When refugees flee from a less developed country to a developed country, the refugees can legally remain in the developed country until the situation in their home country has become stable and no longer threatening. However, refugees who have migrated to a developed country often prefer to remain in the developed country since their economic situation is often much better. Unfortunately, these refugees often have to remain illegally in the host country or return to their home country.
The United Nations and Refugees
In 1951, the United Nations Conference of Plenipotentiaries on the Status of Refugees and Stateless Persons was held in Geneva. This conference led to the treaty called the "Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees of 28 July 1951." The international treaty establishes the definition of a refugee and their rights. A key element of the legal status of refugees is the principle of "non-refoulement" -- a prohibition of the forcible return of people to a country where they have reason to fear prosecution. This protects refugees from being deported to a dangerous home country.
The United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees (UNHCR) is the United Nations agency established to monitor the world refugee situation.
The refugee problem is a serious one; there are so many people around the world who need so much help and there are just not enough resources to help them all. The UNHCR tries to encourage host governments to provide assistance, but most of the host countries are struggling themselves. The refugee problem is one in which developed countries ought to take a greater part to reduce human suffering worldwide.