Classifying refugee host countries by income level
The Global Compact on Refugees emphasizes the importance of greater responsibility- and burden-sharing. Yet, when it comes to hosting refugees, the weight is not equally shared. UNHCR assesses the responsibility for hosting refugees, people in refugee-like situations and other people in need of international protection using several metrics. Unless otherwise stated, all references to refugees in this article refer to these populations and does not include Palestine refugees under UNRWA’s mandate.
Useful metrics include the percentage of refugees hosted by neighbouring countries as well as those hosted by the least developed countries.1 UNHCR also classifies protracted refugee situations.2
UNHCR has used the developed and developing regions categorization to highlight the disproportionately large responsibility for hosting displaced populations that is shouldered by developing regions. However, this categorization, which was published by the United Nations Statistics Division (UNSD), was withdrawn in December 2021. In this article, UNHCR explains its recommended replacement, namely the World Bank’s income groups and presents the impact of this change.
Why is UNHCR making this change?
In 1996, the UNSD introduced the developed and developing regions categorization, publishing the list of countries in each within its Standard Country or Area Codes for Statistical Use (M49). At this time there was no universally accepted definition of developing and developed countries within the UN system and the definition was solely intended for statistical convenience. This definition included Australia, Canada, countries in Europe, Israel, Japan, New Zealand and the United States of America in the developed regions. All other countries were part of the developing regions.
Except for a minor revision in 2018, the list of countries remained constant each year despite significant economic advances in many countries.3 Since its introduction in 1996, the distinction between developed and developing regions has become increasingly blurred. The classification is believed by many in the development community to be too broad and outdated, with a total of 178 countries defined as developing, including countries of widely varying economic and income levels. Since 1990 many developing countries experienced strong economic growth, decreasing the gap between the developed and developing regions. For example, in 2020 the income level in Singapore and the Republic of Korea – two of the wealthiest countries classified as developing – were significantly above those of most countries in the developed regions.4
What alternative classifications exist?
Several other classifications exist, which group countries depending on the purpose of the analysis. Groups may relate to geographies (such as continents or regions) or historic developments (such as the evolution of the European Union). They also include economic and developmental factors such as the World Bank’s classification by income level, the International Monetary Fund’s differentiation between Advanced Economies, Emerging Markets and Developing Economies and the UN Development Programme’s Human Development Index, which considers a variety of indicators related to income, education and health.
What is changing?
For all UNHCR statistical publications on refugees from the end of 2021, UNHCR will group countries into regions by applying the World Bank’s income groups. The most notable advantage of the income groups compared to the legacy developed and developing regions categorization is that the income groups are updated each year to reflect changing circumstances in specific countries relative to all countries globally.
How are the World Bank’s income groups calculated?
The World Bank’s income groups are calculated using data on the income levels of each country globally. The income levels of countries are determined through calculating the Gross National Income (GNI) per capita.5 The income levels are determined by World Bank operational benchmarks and updated yearly to account for economic growth and inflation.6 Not all countries can be classified using the income-level method, as it relies on data which is not available for all countries in all years.7
What is the impact of these changes in country classifications?
As shown in figure 1, when reclassifying countries from developing-developed to income levels, most developed countries are classified as high-income countries. However, more than 40 per cent of countries in the high-income group were previously classified as developing, underlining the shortcomings of the developing-developed classification.
Figure 1 | Changes to countries’ classifications | 2022
What is the impact of the change in classification on statistics relating to refugees?
As seen in figure 2 at mid-year 2022, 71 per cent of refugees were hosted by developing countries. The remaining 29 per cent were hosted in countries in the developed regions. In comparison, 74 per cent of refugees are hosted in upper-middle-income countries (36 per cent), lower-middle-income countries (20 per cent) and low-income countries (18 per cent).
Figure 2 | Refugees | mid-2022
Figure 3 | Refugees | 1990 - mid-2022
The share of refugees hosted in developing countries has been relatively stable over time, ranging between around 85 per cent between 2013-2021 and around 70 per cent in the late 1990s and early 2000s (Figure 3). By contrast, there are marked changes in the distribution of refugees according to their host countries’ income level over time. The two most prominent changes relate to a sharp increase in the share of refugees hosted in upper-middle-income countries since 2009, increasing from 7 per cent in 2009 to 40 per cent in 2021. Upper-middle-income countries, such as Türkiye, Lebanon and Jordan, provided asylum to millions of Syrian refugees, while countries such as Colombia, Peru and Ecuador received a high number of Venezuelans.
The share of refugees hosted by low-income countries has also decreased in comparison to the early 1990s (51 per cent in 1990, compared with 18 per cent in 2022). This can be largely attributed to the economic development of large hosting countries within the group, which were re-classified as lower-middle-income during this period, such as Pakistan. High-income countries have hosted between 17 and 28 per cent of refugees during the same years, with a notable increase in 2022 due primarily to the numbers of Ukrainian refugees hosted in high-income, mainly European countries.
The interactive graph below displays the relationship between countries’ populations, income levels and the number of refugees hosted in the country over time. The size of the bubble indicates the number of refugees, while the colour denotes the income-level or developed/developing status.
Figure 4 | Interactive summary of income group and developed-developing classifications | 1990 - mid-2022
To use this chart, you can start or stop the year animation bar and click or tap on the bar or drag the slider to select specific years. Use the switch to move between the two classifications, and filter the data by region by choosing a specific region from the dropdown list. To highlight just one category, hover over or tap that category in the legend. If the animation is active while you hover, you will be able to see how the income group classifcations change over time.
As shown in figure 5, low-income countries continue to host a disproportionately large share of the world’s refugees, both in terms of their population size and the resources available to them. These countries, represent 9 per cent of the global population8 and only 0.5 per cent of the global gross domestic product,9 yet host 18 per cent of the global refugee population. This includes very large refugee populations in Uganda, Sudan, Ethiopia, Chad and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. High-income countries, which account for nearly two-thirds of the global wealth, hosted 26 per cent of the global refugee population at mid-year of 2022.
Figure 5 | Wealth, population and refugees | mid-2022