The voices of Urban Institute's researchers and staff
June 20, 2016

World Refugee Day: A stark reminder

June 20, 2016

World Refugee Day is not necessarily a day of celebration. Designated to mark the 1951 UN convention relating to the status of refugees, World Refugee Day is a reminder of both the tumult and the promise of refugees’ lives.

A growing number of people around the world have had their lives disrupted by violence, persecution, or environmental devastation. But when people leave a dangerous situation and reach a place of refuge, it can open up opportunities. The long-term prospects for thriving in a new environment matter as much as the immediate relief of protection and safety.

In the past few years, new or intensifying sources of oppression, war, and destruction have accelerated the rate at which people are fleeing their home countries. Today, the flow of refugees has reached unprecedented levels.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) estimates that approximately 60 million people were forcibly displaced in the first six months of 2015. Nearly 20 million have crossed international borders, 10 million have become stateless, and most of the remainder either are seeking asylum or have relocated within their country’s own borders and remain internally displaced. According to UNHCR estimates, 2014 saw the highest level of displaced people ever recorded, with even higher levels likely in 2015. The number of refugees has climbed since 2011 due in large part to the war in Syria.

Syria, Afghanistan, and Somalia were the three largest source countries of refugees in 2015, composing more than half of the world’s refugees. However, the UNHCR notes that conflicts in the past five years have erupted or reignited in 15 countries: eight in Africa, three in the Middle East, one in Europe, and three in Asia. In 2015 alone, 42,500 people on average per day sought asylum, became refugees, or were internally displaced.

Turkey, Pakistan, Lebanon, Iran, Ethiopia, and Jordan host the largest numbers of refugees, many in temporary housing or camps. Some are stranded for years while instability and conflicts remain unresolved in their home countries, and these refugees have no access to long-term resettlement and limited employment opportunities.

Over the past several years, many asylum seekers have pushed past less-hospitable nations in favor of countries in Western Europe. Nearly one million migrants arrived in Southern Europe by sea in 2015, with many making their way north. While many European countries aimed to curtail the flow of asylum-seekers by imposing entry restrictions, building fences, and displaying overt xenophobia, others accepted them. More than two million asylum applications were filed in 38 European countries in 2015. Turkey now houses the most refugees of any country in the world.

Notably, Germany has received the largest number of migrants in the European Union after Chancellor Angela Merkel pledged in August 2015 to protect those fleeing war and violence.   

However, daunted by the pace and scale of migrants entering Germany and the inability to conduct timely security checks and evaluate asylum claims, Merkel acted to control the flow of migrants. Together with the European Union, Merkel came up with a deal with Turkey in March 2016. In exchange for billions of euros in aid and visa-free travel for Turks entering the EU, Turkey agreed to accept migrants entering Greece in return for direct resettlement of Syrian refugees already in Turkey. The flow of migrants into Germany has greatly diminished, shifting to other entry points, while Italy has now seen a tremendous rise.

World Refugee Day reminds us that the difficult work of socially, economically, and culturally incorporating refugees into neighborhoods, workplaces, and schools falls to the refugees themselves and to the communities and institutions they become part of. At some point, refugees cease being refugees and begin to thrive as workers, business owners, homeowners, students, graduates, and civic and political leaders.

A Yazidi refugee family from Iraq cries while resting on the seashore shortly after arriving on a vessel from the Turkish coast to the northeastern Greek island of Lesbos, Thursday, Nov. 26, 2015.  Photo by Muhammed Muheisen/AP

SHARE THIS PAGE

As an organization, the Urban Institute does not take positions on issues. Experts are independent and empowered to share their evidence-based views and recommendations shaped by research.