The global refugee crisis, explained

April 26, 2022

This year, the largest refugee crisis in history became even larger due to conflict in Ukraine. Here’s what you need to know about the global refugee crisis.

When did the refugee crisis start?

The United Nations High Commissioner of Refugees (founded in 1950) keeps data on refugee populations as far back as 1951. Every year over the last seven decades has seen at least 1.6 million refugees. Since 1982, that number has rarely dropped below 10 million refugees registered with UNHCR each year. 

Basically, the current global refugee crisis didn’t happen overnight. It’s been a slowly-accelerating issue for the last 71 years. Conflict has been the rule rather than the exception for most of our history. In 1968, historians Will and Ariel Durant noted that humans have been entirely at peace for just 8% of recorded history — 268 years out of 3,475. 

Learn more about how we reach millions of refugees every year

Causes of the refugee crisis

While there is no definitive “start” of the current refugee crisis, certain events have contributed greatly to it. This year, more than 5 million Ukrainians have registered as refugees (and a total of 10 million have been forcibly displaced as of this writing). 

Over the last 11 years, displacement numbers accelerated due to the Syrian civil war. One out of every 10 refugees today has come from Afghanistan as part of a 40-year crisis. And the roots of the current refugee crisis also owe much to the early 1960s: Between 1957 and 1962, 24 African countries achieved independence from European colonial rule. While most of these transitions were peaceful, they also left the newly-sovereign nations on shaky ground that led to decades of instability and violence.

Recent UN figures show that, on average, 44,000 people leave their homes due to conflict and persecution every day. Conflict, however, is not the only cause of the global refugee crisis; in fact, it’s precisely because there are so many reasons people will flee their homes that so many of our current humanitarian crises are also refugee crises. 

Violation of Human Rights/Persecution

This is where terminology can get a bit technical; while conflict is almost always a form of violence, not all forms of violence are, by definition, conflict. And still, many people become refugees due to persecutions that violate their human rights. Take, for instance, the Rohingya crisis; one of the biggest current refugee crises. Violence directed at the Rohingya people in Rakhine State is a fundamental violation of their human rights at a mass scale. 

Hunger and Famine

Conflict and climate change are two of the biggest contributors to mass migration, though famine and famine-like conditions is another key factor. Hunger and migration go hand-in-hand, as hunger is both a danger that threatens the lives of people forced to leave their homes, and a key influence on their decisions about when and where to move. 

Climate Change

The effects of climate change touch on a number of related factors, including conflict and hunger. The number of so-called “climate refugees” has been on the rise in recent years due to climate disasters growing in terms of destruction and frequency, and the UN estimates that 20 million people are displaced within their own countries each year due to similar conditions. 

Why is the refugee crisis a problem?

For starters, it’s not because of the refugees themselves, or their decision to flee. In fact, the biggest problem of the refugee crisis is usually the needs of refugees themselves. Escaping persecution or any other threat is just the beginning of their story, and the challenges faced in displacement range from language barriers and not being able to legally work, to living in substandard conditions (often informal tented settlements), to facing gender-based violence, sexual assault, and post-traumatic stress

Part of the problem with the current crisis is one of capacity: Providing the bare necessities to nearly 30 million refugees and ensuring protection of their rights is, to say the least, a challenge. Further complicating this is that many refugees are hosted in countries that are also prone to conflict, violence, and insecurity, making supplies and support that much harder to get to the right people. 

Along these lines, host communities also face pressure. Many of the largest communities for refugees are in neighboring countries (of the twelve largest host communities at the end of 2021, only one — Germany — was in Europe, the rest were in Africa, the Middle East, and Asia). Temporary displacement is one thing, but the protracted nature of most conflicts now means that host communities with limited resources can be left with refugee communities for years, if not decades. 

Ukrainian refugees entering Romania through Sighetu Marmaiei Border Crossing, Maramure. Photo: Silviu Filip/Concern Worldwide

What do refugees need once they reach a host community?

The United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights guarantees the equal rights of all human beings. This includes the right to seek asylum from persecution in other countries. In 1951, the UN also published the Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees. In 1998, it published the Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement. Both of these are intended to protect the rights of displaced people. Yet every day, the rights of displaced people are violated. 

Upholding the rights of refugees (and internally displaced people) is one of the biggest priorities for organizations responding to the crisis. Many refugees just want to go home, but this is often not possible due to the dangers faced at home. In the meantime, there are also some basic aspects of life that need to be considered while a refugee is living in displacement, including:

  • Food
  • Water
  • Shelter
  • Healthcare, including maternal health and mental health
  • Education, both for children and, where necessary, adults
  • Employment and financial support
  • Safety and protection

How do we solve the refugee crisis?

It can take many years to find sustainable solutions to the challenges facing displaced communities. For any solution to be considered sustainable, displaced communities must have access to these essential resources and services and eventually become self-reliant. The UN currently recognizes three solutions to displacement:

Returning Home 

When circumstances enable IDPs or refugees to return to their homes voluntarily, it is important that they are able to return safely and with dignity. Refugees are able to rebuild their lives in their homes, although this is entirely dependent upon conditions that allow them to safely do so. 

Local Integration 

Local integration happens when IDPs or refugees are invited to remain permanently where they initially settled after fleeing their homes. This option provides continuity and stability, enabling displaced communities to begin working and resume their daily activities.

Resettlement 

Resettlement or relocation is a process that allows refugees to voluntarily settle in a new country, either where they are being hosted or a third country. It enables people to begin a new chapter of their lives. Since most conflicts today last for extended and indeterminate periods of time, more efforts and resources are focusing on increasing opportunities for this as an option.

The refugee crisis: Concern’s response

Concern’s response to the global refugee crisis is in keeping with the Comprehensive Refugee Response Framework, approved by all 193 Member States of the United Nations in September, 2016. 

While every emergency situation has its own unique considerations and challenges, the CRRF gives a set of guidelines for approaching the predictable aspects of these crises. This includes: 

  1. Easing pressure on countries that welcome and host refugees
  2. Building self-reliance of refugees
  3. Expanding access to resettlement of refugees in third countries or offering other complementary pathways
  4. Fostering conditions that enable refugees to voluntarily return to their home countries

Last year, Concern responded to 78 emergencies in 23 countries — many of which included providing support within the CRRF to refugees, asylum-seekers, and IDPs. Much of our work also impacts the lives of migrants and their families (often separated by international borders for months at a time). Our emergency response last year reached 17.9 million people with urgent necessities such as shelter, healthcare, and food as well as longer-term livelihood trainings that benefit both displaced and host communities. 


The Global Refugee Crisis Explained