What Causes People to Become Refugees?


Refugees are people who are forced to leave their home community in order to preserve their own safety. War, climate change, political turmoil, oppression, and natural disaster are a few of the reasons that lead individuals and families to become refugees.

Current international laws surrounding refugees are based on a 1951 United Nations Convention with the title “Convention Related to the Status of Refugees.” The Convention defines refugees as those who leave their country “owing to well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, or membership of a particular social group or political opinion.” 147 nations signed the Convention, agreeing to adhere to its guidelines for defining and accepting refugees.

The Convention was enacted initially to provide guidance for host nations that saw large influxes of people who were forced to leave their home nations during World War II. Although the Convention was initially established to create policies for World War II refugees, its use was expanded during the late 1960s to include refugees displaced by other reasons.

Today, when an individual or family decides to seek asylum in a different country, they are legally termed an asylum-seeker until the country to which they are seeking asylum grants them refugee status. The country then grants individuals with refugee status civil rights, the right to work, and support in the form of social services. Countries that have signed the Convention also agree to refrain from deporting any asylum-seeker to a place where they may be in danger.

Currently, there are upwards of 10 million people with refugee status in the world, and more than 983,000 asylum-seekers. Most of these people come from developing nations, including large numbers of individuals from Afghanistan, Colombia, and Iraq. Asylum-seekers from Colombia are leaving due to turmoil connected with illegal drug production and trafficking, while individuals from Afghanistan and Iraq are leaving to escape the effects of ongoing wars.

Environmental refugees are individuals who are forced to leave their homes due to damage caused by an earthquake, tsunami, or other environmental issue. The reason for fleeing can also be a man-made environmental disturbance, such as flooding from a dam or a nuclear explosion. While international law does not officially recognize environmental refugees as a refugee type, the Red Cross estimates that there are currently more environmental refugees seeking asylum than individuals seeking asylum due to war.

Many refugees from developing countries choose to seek refugee status in nearby developing countries, with the hope that they may be able to return home eventually. For example, many asylum-seekers from Iraq and Afghanistan choose to travel to Pakistan to escape the violence in their home country.

Additionally, most refugees, once accepted into a country, choose to live in that country’s urban areas. This gives them better access to government aid and non-profit social support programs, which often operate primarily in cities. Cities also allow refugees the opportunity to connect with communities of others from their home country or region.

Internally displaced persons, or IDPs, are individuals who have been forced to move to protect their safety, but have remained within the borders of their home country. These individuals do not meet the requirements specified by international refugee law to receive aid and protection, yet there are currently over 27 million IDPs around the world.

Many of these IDPs live in Sudan, which was thrown into turmoil by a civil war between 1983 and 2005. As a result of that civil war, between 4.5 million and 5.3 million people were forced to leave their homes to protect their safety. Many of these IDPs still live in camps that are poorly constructed, unable to provide adequate shelter, and rife with violence. Colombia, Iraq, Pakistan, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo also have high volumes of IDPs living within their borders.