The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees estimated that by the end of 2017 more than 65 million individuals had been forcibly displaced from their homes. Some 22 million of these people are refugees, over half of whom are under the age of 18. The others remain displaced within the borders of the country as internally displaced persons. Three countries, Syria, Afghanistan, and South Sudan, account for more than half of all refugees.
Since the outbreak of the Syrian uprising and civil war in 2011, more than half of all Syrians have been displaced from their homes. Over 5.5 million of these have fled the country due to war crimes and crimes against humanity including persecution, torture, the besieging of communities and aerial bombardment at the hands of the Syrian regime and of extremist forces, including the self-proclaimed Islamic State (ISIS). Over six million are internally displaced within Syria.
In addition to Syria, large numbers of displaced persons have fled atrocity crises in recent years in Burma, the Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Iraq, and South Sudan, among others. Since 2014, hundreds of thousands of Iraqis have fled the campaign of religious persecution and mass murder waged by ISIS in northern Iraq. In November 2015, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum published its findings that ISIS had committed genocide against the Yezidi and widespread crimes against humanity against other religious communities, including both Christian and Muslim groups.
Recognizing its moral failure to help Jews and others fleeing Nazi persecution before World War II, and faced with hundreds of thousands of displaced persons at the war's end, the international community made important commitments to assist and protect refugees.
In 1948, the United Nations adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which recognizes the right of every individual to seek and enjoy asylum from persecution. In 1951, the UN established the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and adopted the Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees. The latter established the basic international obligation not to return people to countries where their life or freedom might be threatened. The United States accepted this obligation in 1968.
The Refugee Convention defines refugees as persons who are outside their native country or country of habitual residence and who cannot return to their country or call on its protection because they fear that they will be persecuted on the basis of their “race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion.” The convention guarantees refugees a wide range of civil and human rights, including freedom of association, the right of legal redress, and protection from discrimination.
These landmark commitments by the UN established the plight of refugees as a responsibility of the international community. They continue to shape policy today.
Not all persons forcibly displaced from their homes are refugees under international law. “Internally displaced persons” are those who have fled their homes, perhaps for the same reasons as refugees, but have not left the country in which they have been living. Under international law, they still technically fall under the protection of their own government, even if that government is responsible for their displacement.
At the end of 2015, over 40 million people were classified as “internally displaced persons.” Individuals who have crossed an international border fleeing economic misery, civil war, or natural disasters, such as floods, earthquakes, and drought, also do not qualify for refugee status. As a result, such persons do not receive the same legal protections as refugees.
Today's refugee crisis is the product of conflicts that involve mass atrocities and human rights violations. The vast majority of current refugees are in countries neighboring their homelands. For example, 97% of registered Syrian refugees in 2017 are in the neighboring states of Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq. Lebanon alone, with a population of 4.3 million in 2011, has since taken in more than one million Syrian refugees.
Such large inflows of refugees put serious strains on the host countries' resources. Uprooted from their homes, communities, and cultures and often traumatized by their experiences, most refugees live in crowded conditions, unable to find work or provide for their families. Some refugees are seeking to move on to more distant countries where they hope for the opportunity to lead safe and productive lives.
In addition to straining resources, large inflows of refugees can raise national and regional tensions that may have far-reaching consequences. The refugee flow created by Rwanda's genocide contributed to the igniting of two international wars and ongoing insurgencies that have led to more than 5 million deaths in neighboring Democratic Republic of the Congo.
In Europe today, the influx of refugees and an even larger number of migrants has sparked political backlash and contributed to a rise in racism and xenophobia.
Preventing and responding to conflicts before they put populations at risk and providing adequate support and protection for refugees are key requirements for preventing future genocides.