The 10 Largest Refugee Crises to Follow in 2021

December 8, 2020
Photo by Abir Abdullah/ Concern Worldwide

We entered this decade with nearly double the number of refugees around the world compared to the beginning of the last decade. Here are 10 of the largest refugee crises and situations based on UN High Commissioner for Refugees data.

In the past decade, the global refugee population has more than doubled. More than 26 million refugees currently live in host communities, many of which are in neighboring countries. We are now at the highest population on record. 68% of the world’s refugee population comes from just 5 countries. 

Since we began keeping track of the world’s largest refugee crises last year, the number of people forcibly displaced around the world has continued to grow at an alarming rate. Beyond official refugees, the UNCHR has gone from being concerned about 36.4 million people in 2009 to over 86.5 million people a the beginning of this year.

A quick note that we’re focusing specifically on refugees and listing them by country of origin for this accounting. You can check out our breakdown of migrants, refugees, asylum-seekers, and internally-displaced for the key differences. 

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10. Burundi

Over 381,000 Burundians living as refugees (up by over 40,000 compared to last year). For being the tenth-largest refugee crisis, however, it is also one of the least-funded. Almost all Burundian refugees live in neighboring countries like Tanzania (221,400 refugees), Rwanda (68,300), the Democratic Republic of Congo (43,000), Uganda (32,500), Kenya (4,900), and Zambia (4,500). However, this creates a knock-on effect of strained resources within host communities. 

Many of those who have fled Burundi did so in the wake of violent political unrest that began in 2015. While security has improved over the last five years, further instability has been fueled by an economic downturn and extreme food insecurity. 

Concern has operated in Burundi since 1997, focusing on livelihoods, nutrition, and health. Our community-based health and nutrition interventions focus especially on those who have been excluded from the health system. 

9. Eritrea

Nearly 12% of the population of Eritrea — over 505,000 — now live as refugees due to social and political instability and violence. It’s hard to gauge humanitarian need within the small East African country — Eritrea remains one of the countries that Concern struggles to get complete data on for our annual Global Hunger Index

Central African Republic

The Zoumati family stands outside their makeshift shelter in the Mpoko displacement camp near the airport in Bangui, Central African Republic. Photo by Crystal Wells/Concern Worldwide

8. Central African Republic

Since late 2012, the people of Central African Republic have suffered bouts of sectarian violence that have displaced over 1 million people. As of December, 2020, that includes over 610,000 refugees. 

This escalation in violence (which has been ongoing since CAR gained independence from France in 1960) has made it increasingly dangerous for citizens to live in the country — and for humanitarian organizations to work in the country. Concern has been operational in CAR since 2014, with the main goals of providing humanitarian assistance and building the resilience of communities affected by ongoing conflict. 

7. Sudan

In Sudan, as with the DRC and other countries on this list, we can see one of the complications that has grown out of the global refugee crisis: While Sudan is the fourth largest country of asylum for refugees (including the largest population of refugees from South Sudan),  it’s also a country that’s producing an increasing number of refugees — nearly 735,000 as of the summer of 2020. Many Sudanese are fleeing protracted violence or climate change-induced drought and famine. Nearly 270,000 have taken refuge in South Sudan (the site of ongoing conflict and food insecurity). 

Sudan is the fourth largest host country for refugees — but it’s also the sixth largest country producing refugees.

Over 46.5% of Sudan’s population live below the poverty line. Concern has been in the country for more than 34 years. We also work to support the areas of Sudan that function as host communities for the 1.1 million foreign refugees living in the country. 

6. Democratic Republic of Congo

Like the Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of Congo remains one of the world’s largest “forgotten crises.” Its displacement numbers, which have increased since 2019 moving it from Number 6 to Number 5 on this list, speak to that reality. Over 807,000 Congolese refugees were recorded in the summer of 2020. This does not include over 4.5 million Congolese displaced within their own country due to violence in the Kasai, Tanganyika, Ituri, and Kivu regions. Amid all of this, the DRC is also a large host community for refugees from neighboring countries, as we’ll see throughout this list.

Concern has been in the DRC for over 25 years, with emergency response among our top priorities. We work in partnership with the UNICEF RRMP (Rapid Response to Population Movement), the country’s largest emergency response program.

Displaced families collect SIM cards for emergency cash phone transfers from Concern Worldwide at a displacement camp in Mogadishu, Somalia. The programme is funded by DIFD. Numbers of people being displaced by drought and hunger are increasing steadily

5. Somalia

In both 2018 and 2017, over two-thirds of the world’s refugees come from just 5 countries, beginning with Somalia. The good news is that the number of Somali refugees around the world has, for the last several years, been on a slow decline. At the end of 2017, there were over 986,000. Now at the end of 2020, there are an estimated 905,000

Like other countries in the Horn of Africa, Somalia has been plagued by droughts and other effects of climate change. Between 2016 and 2018, four successive below-average rainy seasons led to crop failure, livestock deaths, and a loss of assets. A 25-year armed conflict exacerbated the problem. Many Somali refugees have found Ethiopia, Kenya, and even Yemen to be safer alternatives.  

One key program that is of use for Somali refugees is Concern’s Somali Cash Consortium. We’ve distributed over $16 million to over over 300,000 people in displacement, allowing them the autonomy and dignity of being able to financially prioritize their own needs. 

A young child is screened for malnutrition in Bangladesh.

Concern’s Abida Suldana carries out screening for malnutrition in Moynadhona refugee camp for Rohingya in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh. Photo: Kieran McConville

4. The Rohingya Crisis

Since August 25, 2017, over 1 million Rohingya refugees have fled ongoing violence in Myanmar. Many of the stateless Rohingya have wound up in what is known as the world’s largest refugee camp in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh

Together with UN agencies, over 130 local, national, and international nonprofits (including Concern) have supported the Government of Bangladesh adjust to this increase in capacity. Safety and security remain serious concerns for the Rohingya living in Cox’s Bazar, especially in the wake of COVID-19 (which reached the camp this summer). 

Concern has been in Bangladesh for nearly the entire span of our more than 50-year history. This helped us to respond quickly and agilely to the influx of refugees in Cox’s Bazar. 

Nyakoun with her son Thujin

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

3. South Sudan

Since December 2013, conflict in the burgeoning nation of South Sudan has driven nearly 4 million people from their homes — with more than half being forced to leave the country entirely. Approximately 2.3 million South Sudanese live in host communities abroad, including areas of Sudan, Uganda, Ethiopia, Kenya, and the DRC.

Concern has been in South Sudan since it gained independence in 2011. There, we work to address the ongoing humanitarian needs and the pressure generated by widespread displacement. In addition to working with the nearly 2 million internally displaced South Sudanese (many of whom live in Protection of Civilian Sites), we also have a presence in many of the host communities for South Sudanese refugees, including Sudan, Ethiopia, Kenya, and the DRC. 

2. Afghanistan

Afghanistan continues to be the country of origin for the second-largest refugee population. Roughly 1 in 10 — that is, 2.7 million — refugees are Afghan by birth, and this number has fluctuated steadily over the last four decades. More than 88% of Afghan refugees are hosted in neighboring Pakistan and Iran. 

Today, one in 10 refugees comes from Afghanistan.

For those Afghans still living in their home country, almost two-thirds are in areas that are directly affected by conflict. This conflict prompts ongoing internal displacement. The problem is compounded by the limited capacity of communities, government and humanitarian actors to withstand the impact of repeated natural disasters including floods, landslides, earthquakes and drought.

Concern has been in Afghanistan for over 20 years and recently became the UN’s chosen partner for the emergency response to displacement in the northeastern part of the country. 

Syrian child stands alone in an informal settlement in Laebanon

A Syrian child living in an informal refugee settlement in Lebanon.

1. Syria

Over 25% of the total global refugee population are part of the global diaspora in the wake of the 10-year Syrian crisis. As of mid-2020, 6.6 million Syrians have sought refuge, primarily in Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq, Egypt, and Turkey (which is currently the largest host community for refugees). In Lebanon, there are no formal camps, which leaves its population of over 1 million Syrians living across 2,000 communities, often overcrowded temporary shelters. 

The number of Syrians displaced within their own country matches the number of refugees, with conflicts driving over 6.6 million people from their homes and forcing them to resettle. 2.98 million still remain in hard-to-reach and besieged areas. 

Since 2013, Concern has responded to this crisis, both locally in Syria, and with refugee communities in Turkey, Lebanon, and Iraq.

Concern’s work with refugees

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

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

In 2020 alone, Concern responded to 78 emergencies in 23 countries, reaching 17.9 million people with urgent necessities such as shelter, healthcare, and food as well as longer-term livelihoods trainings that benefit both displaced and host communities.