Newly arrived refugee children from South Sudan at Nyumanzi reception centre, Uganda.
© UNHCR/Isaac Kasamani

20 people are newly displaced every minute of the day

Over the past two decades, the global population of forcibly displaced people has grown substantially from 33.9 million in 1997 to 65.6 million in 2016, and it remains at a record high. The growth was concentrated between 2012 and 2015, driven mainly by the Syrian conflict along with other conflicts in the region such as in Iraq and Yemen, as well as in sub-Saharan Africa including Burundi, the Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, South Sudan, and Sudan.

The Global Trends Report is published every year to analyze the changes in UNHCR’s populations of concern and deepen public understanding of ongoing crises. UNHCR counts and tracks the numbers of refugees, internally displaced people, people who have returned to their countries or areas of origin, asylum-seekers, stateless people and other populations of concern to UNHCR. These data are kept up to date and analyzed in terms of various criteria, such as where people are, their age and whether they are male or female. This process is extremely important in order to meet the needs of refugees and other populations of concern across the world and the data help organizations and States to plan their humanitarian response. The data presented are based on information available as of 15 May 2017 unless otherwise indicated.

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More people than ever affected by forced displacement

Syria. Children from the Islamic Charity Orphanage in Homs take the bus to school. Mohammed A. and Mohammed C. take a bus to school from the Islamic Charity Association Orphanage in Homs. They and their siblings have been separated from their families by the conflict. © UNHCR/Andrew McConnell

The events of recent years have led to a major increase in displacement: from about 1 in 160 people a decade ago to 1 in 113 today. While this is still a record high, the growth in the number of people who have been forcibly displaced has slowed for the first time in recent years. Nonetheless, large numbers of people were on the move in 2016 and there were 10.3 million new displacements, large numbers of returning refugees and internally displaced people (IDPs), who were forced to flee but remained in their own countries. More than 550,000 refugees returned home to try to rebuild their lives.

12 million Syrians forcibly displaced

Syrians continued to be the largest forcibly displaced population, with 12 million people at the end of 2016. Colombians were the second-largest group, followed by Afghans. Other large displaced populations at the end of 2016 included Iraq and South Sudan.

Looking at the forcibly displaced as a proportion of the national population, the Syrian Arab Republic (Syria) was the most affected, with 650 out of every 1,000 people forcibly displaced. Other emergencies also had deep consequences in 2016 continuing to cause significant humanitarian needs, in the countries least able to respond to them. The war in South Sudan led to a rapid outflow of refugees and many new IDPs, the refugee population from South Sudan grew by 85 per cent during the year. Similarly, the refugee population from Burundi increased by 39 per cent during 2016 while the IDP population in that country quadrupled to 141,200 people.

South Sudan, the fastest growing refugee crisis

In 2016, the South Sudanese refugee crisis was the fastest growing in the world. The large number of infants, children, and pregnant women among the South Sudanese refugees made the humanitarian response particularly challenging. South Sudan and the neighbouring countries are among the poorest and least developed countries in the world, with limited resources to deal with the needs and challenges associated with hosting displaced people.

Although most refugees remained close to home, some moved further afield, resulting in an increase in refugee and asylum-seeker populations in some European States. In Germany, this population rose to 1.3 million people by the end of 2016, while in Sweden it reached 313,300.

Around half of the 2016 refugee population were children. Without the protection of family, unaccompanied and separated children are particularly at risk of exploitation and abuse. The number of such children who were reported as having applied for asylum reached 75,000 during the year, although this number is considered to be an underestimate.

Returns increase

In 2016, some half a million refugees and 6.5 million IDPs returned to their countries or areas of origin, an increase compared to 2015. However, the context in which many displaced people returned was complex, leading to concerns that many returns may not be sustainable. Resettlement provided a solution for 189,300 refugees.

In March 2016, the United Nations Statistical Commission, at its 47th session, decided to establish an Expert Group on Refugee and IDP Statistics (EGRIS). The group consists of participants from national authorities, international statistical organizations, and other technical experts, led by Statistics Norway, Eurostat, and UNHCR, and aims to address the challenges related to refugee and IDP statistics.

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Record numbers seek refuge in the face of multiple crises

Turkey. Firas (center) is disabled, which limits his employment possibilities. He and his older son collect recyclables to support the family of 8. Most Syrian refugees are choosing to remain in Turkey. ©UNHCR / Matthew McConnell

The global refugee population hit its highest level for two decades standing at 22.5 million (including 5.3 million Palestinian refugees registered with UNRWA) at the end of 2016 – a 65 per cent increase over five years. The rate of increase has slowed but the population nonetheless still grew by 2.3 million newly recognized refugees in 2016. Half were recognized on a group basis, the rest as individuals.

Many new refugees in 2016

The Syrian Arab Republic was the most common country of origin with some 824,400 new recognitions of refugees fleeing the conflict there. Crises in sub-Saharan Africa led to new displacements with almost 737,400 from South Sudan, a notable development in 2016. The next largest numbers of new refugees were from Burundi, Iraq, Nigeria and Eritrea.

Where do the refugees come from?

The largest group of refugees was made up of the 5.5 million Syrians forced to flee. Refugees from Afghanistan were the second largest group according to country of origin. Their numbers decreased from 2.7 million at the end of 2015 to 2.5 million at the end of 2016 due to returns from Pakistan, although a substantial number (1.4 million) still remain there. The Islamic Republic of Iran reported 951,100 Afghan refugees and a further 110,500 were spread over Germany, Austria, Sweden, Italy and Greece.

Where are refugees being hosted?

Due to the Syrian conflict Turkey hosted the largest number of refugees – a total of 2.9 million mostly from Syria. Turkey also hosts some 30,400 refugees from Iraq. Crises in Sub-Saharan Africa have tended to force people to flee into neighbouring countries and as a result this region continues to host large and increasing numbers of refugees from South Sudan, Somalia, Sudan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Central African Republic, Eritrea and Burundi.

Pakistan held the second largest refugee population – 1.4 million at the end of 2016, almost entirely from Afghanistan. This has reduced slightly because of refugee returns. There were 1 million refugees hosted in Lebanon. Some 979,400 refugees continued to live in the Islamic Republic of Iran.

Uganda experienced a dramatic increase in the refugee population going from 477,200 at the end of 2015 to 940,800 at the end of 2016. This population was 68 per cent from South Sudan with significant numbers from Democratic Republic of the Congo, Burundi, Somalia and Rwanda. Indeed Uganda registered the greatest number of new refugees in 2016. Numbers of refugees also increased in Ethiopia, Jordan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, while numbers in Kenya declined.

Germany’s refugee population more than doubled in the course of 2016 to reach 669,500, mostly due to the recognition of asylum claims lodged in 2015, largely from Syria.

There has been a rapid increase in refugees from some of the poorest countries in the world, fleeing to some of the poorest countries in the world. Nine of the top ten refugee hosting countries were in developing regions.

refugee is someone who has been forced to flee his or her country because of persecution, war, or violence. A refugee has a well-founded fear of persecution for reasons of race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership of a particular social group. Refugees are recognized under various international agreements. Some are recognized as a group or on a ‘prima facie’ basis. Some undergo an individual investigation before being given refugee status.

Long-term refugee situations

Some two thirds of refugees, 11.6 million, were in protracted refugee situations. 4.1 million of them are in exceptionally drawn out situations of 20 years or more such as Palestinian refugees in Egypt and Afghans in Pakistan.

When 25,000 or more refugees of the same nationality have been in exile in a particular country for five consecutive years, this is classed as a ‘protracted refugee situation’.


Long-term solutions

Finding acceptable ways to live

Canada. The ‘From Far and Wide’ project helps Syrian families feel at home. Here Marion, a volunteer, plays with the children of the Nouman family on a beach in Toronto. Marion is one of a group of sponsors who organize social outings and help with errands and shopping for the family. © UNHCR / Annie Sakkab

Refugees need comprehensive and long-lasting solutions to rebuild shattered existences and live in dignity and peace. Such durable solutions are at the heart of UNHCR’s work, in addition to providing international protection.

UNHCR helps refugees mostly in low and middle-income countries. 75 per cent of refugees got help from UNHCR in 2016.

The numbers of new refugees are increasing by the minute but the numbers of refugees finding lasting solutions are not.

Voluntary repatriation is the most common solution. To be successful there must be cooperation between the country of asylum and the country of origin so that the returnee is properly supported. Repatriation must be voluntary and decisions made with full information. In 2016 there were more than 552,300 refugee returns – a substantial increase.

The number of repatriations has more than doubled, but viewed as a percentage of the whole, the level of return in recent years has been very low at less than 5 per cent of the refugee population.

Finding a new home through a resettlement programme

An increasing number of countries took part in UNHCR’s resettlement programme, under which a quota of refugees are welcomed into a country annually. Resettlement States provide legal and physical protection with a view to working towards permanent residence. It is hoped that more countries will join the 37 participants currently taking part.

In the face of growing numbers of refugees seeking a long-term solution, UNHCR is also working with States to create new possibilities in addition to the traditional resettlement programmes. These include options such as private sponsorship programmes, family reunification, labour mobility schemes and academic scholarships.

189,300 refugees were admitted for resettlement in 2016, an increase of 77 per cent compared to 2015. The United States of America received 51per cent of resettlement refugees (96,900), large numbers were also welcomed by Canada, and Australia.

Refugees from Myanmar were the largest national group benefiting from resettlement, followed by those from the Syrian Arab Republic, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Somalia.

Working towards local integration

Often refugees are able to make a home in their countries of asylum, gradually integrating and ultimately gaining the right to permanent residence and, in some cases, citizenship. Local integration is complex and hard to track and measure. Naturalizations (gaining citizenship or nationality of a country) are used as a measure of local integration but this does not show the full picture.

23 countries reported 23,000 naturalizations of refugees to UNHCR in 2016, the greatest number in Canada followed by France, Belgium and Austria.

Every year some refugees agree to return to their country of origin. This process is known as voluntary repatriation. Other options are to take the opportunity to settle in a third country or integrate into the host community.


Focus on South Sudan

Uganda. Fleeing conflict: South Sudanese seek refuge in Uganda. On arrival at the Suluba Transit Center, these refugees will first receive medical treatment. Once registered they will be able to access the same public services as Ugandan nationals. Uganda’s asylum policy is highly praised across the world. © UNHCR / Alessandro Penso

South Sudan became independent in 2011 after civil wars that claimed 2.5 million lives. Unfortunately, conflict broke out in 2013 and has spread since, leading to a complex and dangerous situation of armed conflict, inter-communal violence, economic decline, disease and hunger.

As of the end of 2016 one in four people in South Sudan have been forced from their homes. That’s a total of 3.3 million, with 1.9 million IDPs, plus 1.4 million refugees in neighbouring countries. More than half of all children are out of school.

5.5 million people are expected to be severely food insecure by mid 2017.

Uganda. Finding safety. A South Sudanese boy holds his baby brother while his family is registered in Busia, before being transferred to a refugee settlement. © UNHCR / Alessandro Penso


Forced to flee within your own country’s borders

40.3 million people internally displaced

Iraq. Internally displaced families reach safety. Families from the village of Shora, 25 milometers south of Mosul, approach a checkpoint on the outskirts of Qayyarah. Liberated two months earlier, Qayyarah is still engulfed in thick black smoke from oil wells set ablaze by retreating militants. © UNHCR / Ivor Prickett

Armed conflict, widespread violence and human rights violations forced nearly 5 million people to flee within their own countries in 2016. This brought the number of internally displaced persons (IDPs) to 40.3 million. The number of IDPs has come down since 2015, when it hit a peak of 40.8 million, after a five year long rising trend.

6.5 million return to their areas of origin

In 2016, 6.5 million IDPs were able to return to their areas of origin. This is by far the highest number on record and reverses a disturbing trend of recent years where new displacements have outweighed returns. However, many returns take place under hazardous conditions and do not necessarily represent an improvement in living conditions. 1.4 million people in Iraq and 974,000 in Yemen returned to their areas of origin. Significant numbers returned to their areas of origin from Pakistan, Nigeria, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Syria, Libya, Philippines and Mali.

Displaced populations remain large

Colombia, the country with the largest overall number of IDPs, continued to have a population of 7.4 million registered IDPs.

A more fluid situation presents itself in Syria and Iraq, both of which had large and fluctuating IDP populations. In the course of the year 600,000 Syrian IDPs were able to return to their areas of origin, however, there were also many new displacements and Syria still has the second highest IDP population in the world with 6.6 million people.

Similarly, Iraq’s 2016 IDP population remained large with 3.6 million. Of 1.4 million displaced people who returned home within Iraq, UNHCR assisted almost half a million.

Almost 5 million people newly displaced

The largest group of newly displaced people, 1.3 million, was in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where a long-standing and complex humanitarian crisis continued, especially in the eastern part of the country. 630,000 were displaced in Libya, 623,000 in Afghanistan, 598,000 in Iraq and 467,000 in Yemen.

In Sudan the total IDP population declined to 2.2 million; despite the decrease Sudan still had the fifth largest IDP population. Other countries with an IDP population of over 1 million include Nigeria (2.2 million), Yemen (2.0 million), South Sudan (1.9 million) Ukraine (1.8 million), Afghanistan (1.8 million) and Somalia (1.6 million). UNHCR assisted with nearly 3 million of the 6.5 million IDP returns.

An internally displaced person (IDP) is someone who has been forced to flee but has not left their country of origin.


Seeking sanctuary

Millions of asylum-seekers worldwide are waiting

Greece. Young Afghan asylum-seeker dreams of becoming a model. Fourteen-year-old Afghan refugee “Paris” (her acquired name since arriving in Greece) poses for photographs. Her dream is to go to France to become a model, but for now she shares a dormitory room with her family and seven other families in a camp. © UNHCR/Roland Schönbauer

2.8 million asylum-seekers were waiting for a life-changing decision at the end of 2016. 2.2 million applications were made in the course of the year, some 2.0 million of these were first time applications known as ‘first instance’ procedures and the remainder were appeals or ‘second instance’.

In many countries UNHCR handles the decision making process at the request of the national authorities. In those countries more than 200,000 applications were registered, some 8000 were on appeal.

Where do individuals claim asylum?

Germany has received the largest number of new asylum applications by far – 722,400 in 2016. This increasing trend began nine years ago but recent increases have been significant (441,900 in 2015 and 173,100 in 2014). Around one third of these applications were from Syrians, more than six times the number received in 2014. Applications from Afghanistan also increased and significant numbers of new applications came from Iraq, Islamic Republic of Iran, Eritrea, Albania and Pakistan. Applications from Albanians decreased.

The United States was the second largest receiving country for asylum applications with 262,000 – double the number received in 2014. Around half of applications to the US came from Central America especially Mexico and with a notable increase from El Salvador. Overall the number of people fleeing violence in Central America increased to levels not seen since the armed conflicts of the 1980s.

Italy, the third largest recipient, saw a sharp increase with 123,000 new claims compared with 83,200. The countries of origin of those seeking sanctuary in Italy remained stable – Nigeria, Pakistan, Gambia, Senegal, Côte d’Ivoire, Eritrea.

Syrians made up the majority of people seeking sanctuary in Turkey, where they benefit from protection on a group basis, however 78,600 new non-Syrian individual claims were lodged in 2016, many from people originating from Afghanistan, Iraq and Iran. This made Turkey the third largest recipient of new asylum claims. Overall, however, the numbers were lower than the previous year.

The origins of those seeking asylum in France have changed greatly in the last two years. In 2016, new claimants came from Albania, Sudan, Afghanistan, Syria, Haiti and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Greece was the sixth largest recipient of new individual asylum claims, with a four-fold increase in the number of claims from 2015, more than half from Syrians.

Austria, South African and the United Kingdom also received substantial numbers of asylum claims in 2016 but these three countries reported declines in numbers compared with 2015.

Of the 208,100 new asylum applications made in UNHCR offices, most were received by Turkey, then Egypt, Malaysia, Jordan and Syria.

Syria continued to dominate with the most asylum claims from its citizens in 105 different countries in the world. The next most common country of origin was Afghanistan followed by Iraq, Iran and then Pakistan.

Unfortunately it is difficult to give a completely accurate account of the country of origin for asylum-seekers because not all States record and/or disclose this. Additional challenges are posed by double counting caused by the ‘Emergency Relocation Mechanism’ used by the European Union.

Decisions on recognition

1.5 million asylum cases were decided by States and by UNHCR in 2016, this was the largest number on record. Just under 899,600 asylum-seekers were either recognized as refugees or given a complementary form of protection, much more than in previous years. 598,400 claims were turned down, including both first instance and appeal rejections.

The Total Protection Rate, as in the percentage of decisions that give any kind of international protection was 60 per cent. This is greatly increased since 2003 when it hit a low of 27 per cent.

Who was most likely to get a positive decision?

Applicants from Syria had 99 per cent protection rates, Iraqis 68 per cent, Iranians 59 per cent, Afghans 57 per cent and Pakistanis 24 per cent. The increasing proportion of Syrians partly explains the increase in positive decisions because they are more likely to be granted international protection.

How many are still waiting?

There was a sustained increase in the global asylum-seeker population, which now numbered 2.8 million individuals. The decrease since the previous year was caused by changes in the way the statistics are compiled and masked the overall trend of an increasing population.

Where does the world asylum-seeker population come from?

The most highly represented country of origin was Afghanistan followed by Iraq, Syria (down 25 per cent), Islamic Republic of Iran, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Ethiopia and China.

Which countries hosted the most asylum-seekers?

The largest asylum-seeker population lives was in Germany (587,400 pending claims, an increase of 160 per cent on 2014). Despite the fact that Germany made more decisions than any other country, the sheer volume of applications has meant the processing of claims was not been able to keep up.

The numbers of asylum-seekers in the USA also increased, almost doubling in the two years from the start of 2015 until the end of 2016. Turkey also had a significant asylum-seeker population even excluding applicants from Syria. Other countries with significant asylum-seeker populations included South Africa, Sweden, Austria, France and Malaysia. However, it was difficult to get an accurate picture as not all countries reported this information consistently.

Asylum-seekers are people who are seeking sanctuary in a country other than their own, and are waiting for a decision about their status. The legal processes related to asylum are complex and variable, which is a challenge when it comes to counting, measuring and understanding the asylum-seeking population. When an asylum application is successful, the person is awarded refugee status.

Unaccompanied and separated children applying for asylum

Children separated from their parents and families because of conflict, forced displacement or natural disasters are especially vulnerable. In order to protect them it is imperative that governments and agencies collect data to better understand this group. Unfortunately the data on this population is limited. Not all countries reported it, including those with significant numbers in this situation.

75,000 unaccompanied or separated children under the age of 18 were reported to have claimed asylum in 2016 in 70 countries. 18,300 of them were below the age of 15. This is known to be an under-estimate. More than half all reported asylum claims from unaccompanied or separated children were made in Germany with the next largest groups in Italy, Austria, Sweden, United Kingdom, Bulgaria, Turkey and Greece. The commonest country of origin for an unaccompanied or separated child, claiming asylum, was Afghanistan followed by Syria, Iraq, Eritrea, Somalia and Ethiopia.

NIGERIA. EIGHT YEAR OLD ISSA HAS RETURNED HOME ALONE. Issa was separated from her family and fled to neighbouring Cameroon on her own after violence erupted, perpetrated by Boko Haram. She has now returned to Nigeria and is registered at a camp for the internally displaced in Adamawa State. © UNHCR/GEORGE OSODI


Statelessness, the ‘invisible’ problem

Improving data with UNHCR’s Global Action Plan to End Statelessness (GAP)

Montenegro. Stateless in the Balkans. Although born in Montenegro, these sisters’ parents lack identity documents and are unable to get citizenship for themselves or the girls. Like an estimated 10 million people worldwide, they are stateless. © UNHCR / Miomir Laban

Stateless people frequently live in precarious situations on the margins of society, making it a challenge to measure statelessness. UNHCR was only able to account for 3.2 million out of an estimated 10 million stateless persons in the world.

The identification of stateless people is key to addressing difficulties they face and to enabling governments, UNHCR, and others to prevent and reduce statelessness. Improving data is important to achieving GAP objectives and it’s also a key part of achieving the goals of UNHCR’s #IBelong Campaign. If statelessness is determined by procedures in accordance with GAP, there will be new data in countries hosting stateless migrants in due course. GAP also advocates the strengthening of civil registration and vital statistics systems in order to increase the availability of quantitative data.

UNHCR is improving data by undertaking targeted surveys and studies to establish the scale and profile of an affected population. During 2016, six such studies were completed in countries as diverse as Austria and Côte d’Ivoire. Statistics and information on the situation of stateless populations also can be gathered through population censuses. UNHCR operations are collaborating with statisticians and relevant authorities to include questions in upcoming censuses that will assist in identifying the number of stateless people. UNHCR encourages all States to do this.

Significant reductions in 6 countries

In 2016, a reported 60,800 stateless people in 31 countries acquired nationality, with significant reductions in Côte d’Ivoire, Kyrgyzstan, the Philippines, the Russian Federation, Tajikistan, and Thailand. In the Philippines, more than 4,000 people of Indonesian descent in were able to confirm Philippine and/or Indonesian nationality thanks to an agreement between UNHCR and the Governments of Indonesia and the Philippines. In Tajikistan, close to 7,500 people had their nationality confirmed.

Stateless people are not considered as nationals by any State under its law. Statelessness is sometimes referred to as an invisible problem, because stateless people often remain unseen and unheard. They may not be able to go to school, see a doctor, get a job, open a bank account, buy a house, or even get married.


Other people of concern

803,100 need UNHCR but fall between categories

Guatemala. A family of Honduran refugees arrive at the Mexican border. Hondurans and Salvadorans, fleeing gang wars and criminal violence, travel through Guatemala, and begin the hazardous 1200 km journey to the United States of America, where they hope to make a new life. People in need of international protection transiting through Guatemala are a population of concern to UNHCR. © UNHCR / Tito Herrera

Former refugees, rejected asylum-seekers and host populations affected by an influx of displaced people are just a few examples of the 800,000 or so people who fall into this category.

UNHCR-assisted programmes currently benefitting people of concern included education, health, water and sanitation. Almost 115,000 returning Afghan refugees who faced challenges in trying to reintegrate into Afghanistan and 162,200 naturalized former Burundian refugees in Tanzania and 80,000 Filipino Muslims in Sabah in Malaysia were considered to be of concern to UNHCR.

Other people of concern is a category of people who, whether as individuals or as a group, need protection or assistance on humanitarian grounds but do not fit into existing population or legal categories.


Who’s who and where are they?

Why do we need to know?

CHAD. NEW REFUGEES ARRIVE FROM THE CENTRAL AFRICAN REPUBLIC. Following clashes between armed groups in the town of Ngaoundaye, located some 9 km from the Chadian border, a new influx of refugees has arrived. Staff from UNHCR and partner organizations provide them with protection and assistance. © UNHCR/SALVATOR NDABAZERUTSE

Knowing basic details about the populations of concern to UNHCR is very significant. It is vital to know the sex, age and geographical location of a population in order to be able to plan for maternal and reproductive health, education, care of vulnerable individuals and much more.

IDP populations in many cases number millions and yet little is known about their demographic make-up.

Nearly half of all refugees were women or girls and about half were children – a higher proportion than is seen in the world population. Some countries had even more children in their refugee populations such as Cameroon, the Central African Republic, Ethiopia, Niger and South Sudan.

The majority of refugees do not live in camps but in urban areas, in private accommodation. This is especially true for Syrian refugees. Most refugees in rural areas live in camps. How and where people live changes the way that support is provided.

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