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Forced Migration

The world is currently experiencing the largest refugee crisis since World War II. According to the UN refugee agency (UNHCR), the number of people forced to leave their homes has doubled over the past decade to 79.5 million people (2020). This amounts to 1% of the world’s population.

Forced migration


Before you read on, make sure you understand the difference between these important terms:

Syrian refugees waiting for food supplies in the Yarmouk camp on the outskirts of Damaskus. Photo.
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Why are people fleeing their homes?

The most common factor for forced migration around the world is various forms of conflicts – violent or non-violent. This is often closely linked to poverty, food insecurity, violence and persecution. The causes are many and they vary from region to region. Lately, we have also been forced to add climate change to this list. Climate change produces environmental effects which may make it difficult and sometimes impossible for people to survive where they live, and we know this will result in more human migration in the future, across international borders and within countries.

The European Refugee Crisis

While most refugee crises are local in the area of conflict, the alarming rise of refugees attempting to reach Europe between 2014 and 2018 was a brutal wakeup call for the Western world. In 2015, the peak year, 1.3 million people crossed into Europe. Some made their way over land, principally through Turkey and Albania. But the vast majority arrived by sea, crossing the Mediterranean in small and overcrowded boats that were often not seaworthy, resulting in thousands of deaths. The great majority reaching the shores of Europe in 2015 were refugees fleeing the Syrian civil war, but there were also people from Iraq, Nigeria, Pakistan and Afghanistan, all countries with recent or ongoing conflicts. The number of refugees seeking asylum in Europe has since decreased, but that does not mean that the number of refugees in the world has fallen.

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Five countries dominate the refugee statistics

In 2020, more than two-thirds (68%) of all refugees came from only five countries: Syria, Venezuela, Afghanistan, South Sudan and Myanmar. Let’s take a quick look at the situation in these five countries.


The Syrian civil war started in 2011 and has become the largest refugee and displacement crisis in modern time. By 2020, more than half the Syrian population had left their homes, either crossing an international border (5.6 million) or moving to a safer place within Syria (6.2 million). At least half of all migrants from Syria are children.

Most Syrian refugees have fled across borders to neighbouring countries and have remained in the Middle East. Turkey hosts 3.6 million refugees from Syria, the largest number of refugees hosted by any country in the world. Other main receivers are Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq, and Egypt, all countries with limited resources of their own.


Once a democracy with the strongest economy in South America and the world’s biggest oil reserves, today the economy of Venezuela is in ruins. Since 2010, corruption and failed government policies have led to the collapse of Venezuela’s economy. The infrastructure in the country has crumbled, leaving millions of Venezuelans in poverty. There is a serious shortage of food and medicine, which has led the UN to characterise the situation as a humanitarian crisis.

By 2020, a total of 4.5 million Venezuelans had fled the country, making this one of the largest refugee crises in modern history. Colombia and Peru have been the main recipients of people fleeing from Venezuela, and 80% of all refugees have remained in Latin America.


There has been political and social turmoil in Afghanistan ever since the Soviet intervention in 1979, with continuous waves of violence. Afghanistan has gone through a civil war, international interventions, war with the USA, and a deep conflict with the Taliban. Each conflict has resulted in an increase of refugees and internal displacement.

Today, there are almost 2.5 million registered refugees worldwide from Afghanistan. Ninety-five per cent of Afghan refugees have sought refuge in the neighbouring countries of Iran and Pakistan. In addition, there are over one million internally displaced people in Afghanistan, mostly people fleeing areas controlled by the Taliban.

South Sudan

After Africa’s longest running civil war, South Sudan gained independence from Sudan in 2011. However, independence did not bring peace. In 2013, a new civil war broke out, and this escalated into a full-blown humanitarian crisis.

The result was the displacement of over 4 million people. An estimated 2 million Sudanese are internally displaced, while another 2 million have crossed the borders to neighbouring countries. Over 80% of people who have fled the country have been women and children, and 63% of all refugees have been under the age of 18.


The Rohingya is one of Myanmar’s many ethnic groups, with its own language, culture, and religion. They have lived in Myanmar for generations, but the Myanmar government still regard them as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh and have refused them citizenship and all basic rights.

In August 2017, violence erupted after a Rohingya militant group attacked several police stations. In the course of a month more than 6000 Rohingyas were killed, 280 villages were destroyed and people were forced to flee. More than a million Rohingya refugees have fled violence in Myanmar and most of them have crossed over the border to the neighbouring country of Bangladesh.


Ahmed, K (2020). Forcibly displaced now account for 1% of humanity - UN report. Retrieved from: https://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2020/jun/18/forcibly-displaced-now-account-for-1-of-humanity-un-report

BBC News (2020). Myanmar Rohingya: What you need to know about the crisis. Retrieved from: https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-41566561

Labrador, R C (2019). The Venezuelan Exodus. Retrieved from: https://www.cfr.org/in-brief/venezuelan-exodus

UNHCR (2019). South Sudan refugee Crisis Explained. Retrieved from: https://www.unrefugees.org/news/south-sudan-refugee-crisis-explained/#What%20is%20the%20UN%20Refugee%20Agency%20doing%20to%20help%20in%20Yemen

UNHCR (2020). Venezuela situation. Retrieved from: https://www.unhcr.org/venezuela-emergency.html

World Vision (2020) Syrian Refugee Crisis: Facts, FAQs, and how to help. Retrieved from: https://www.worldvision.org/refugees-news-stories/syrian-refugee-crisis-facts#wher

Relatert innhold

Tasks that help you better understand the scale of forced migration and how the world reacts to this migration.

CC BY-SASkrevet av Karin Søvik.
Sist faglig oppdatert 14.10.2020


Immigration and Multiculturalism