What is a refugee? Facts and how to help

Updated Aug 16, 2021
With 26 million refugees worldwide, levels of displacement are at an all-time high.

Countries that border conflict zones are inundated with people who are desperately seeking asylum from the dangers that surround them back home. In the news, there are too many stories about the various conflicts people are fleeing from and about the countries taking (or not taking) migrants in.  

While there are complex issues behind every conflict and war, at the heart of the matter are the men, women and children who are caught in the middle. They are refugees and their lives have been put in limbo by circumstances that are out of their control.

1. What is a refugee?
2. What is an internally displaced person?
3. What is an asylum seeker?
4. Do refugees have rights?
5. What is the difference between a refugee and a migrant?
6. What is a refugee camp?
7. What is life like in a refugee camp?
8. Which countries host the largest refugee populations?
9. What is the biggest refugee camp in the world?
10. Where are the largest refugee camps in the world located?
11. What is a Syrian refugee?
12. What is a refugee crisis?
13. What was Canada's response to the refugee crisis?
14. What can I do to help?  
  1. What is a refugee?
According to the UN Refugee Agency, a refugee is a person whose race, religious beliefs, ethnicity, nationality, political views or membership in a particular association or social group has placed their life at risk of death or persecution and must flee for their own safety. Refugees are often forced to run for their lives with nothing more than the clothes on their backs.  

Refugees cannot return home or are afraid to return home due to fear of death or persecution. They are likely to remain a refugee for many years – for some, it may even be decades. It is estimated that 37,000 people are forced to flee their homes every day because of violence and persecution.

There are over 25.9 million refugees around the world, with two-thirds coming from just five countries: Syria, Afghanistan, South Sudan, Myanmar and Somalia. Over half of these refugees are school-aged children under the age of 18.
  1. What is an internally displaced person?
An internally displaced person is someone who seeks sanctuary within their own country, anywhere they can find it – in nearby towns, settlements or internal camps, even forests and fields. Because they are still under the authority of their own governments, internally displaced people are ineligible for protection and do not receive many types of aid that refugees are entitled to under international law. There are 41.3 million internally displaced people around the world, with the largest populations coming from Colombia, Syria, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Somalia. Internal strife and natural disasters are two of the main reasons why people become displaced in their own countries.
  1. What is an asylum seeker?
Before someone can be considered a refugee and gain the rights, legal protection and assistance they are entitled to, they must first apply for asylum in the country they wish to enter. An asylum seeker must be interviewed to prove that they have a valid reason to fear death or persecution in their home country – in cases of mass evacuations due to conflict or violence, this not always possible. There are 3.5 million asylum seekers today, with 341,800 new asylum claims made in 2018.     
  1. Do refugees have rights?
When displaced people seek asylum in a different country, their dignity, rights and identity can be at risk in the scramble for safety. The 1951 Refugee Convention was established to ensure that refugees and their rights are protected and recognized by the countries that grant them asylum. Under the Convention’s core principle of non-refoulement, refugees must not be sent back to a country where they are at risk of death or persecution.

In addition, the Convention grants certain rights to refugees that allow them to find housing and work, access education, practice their religion, move freely within the territory and protect them from punishment for illegally entering the country. In turn, refugees must abide by the laws and regulations of the host country and respect the measures taken to maintain public order.  

Dozens of Venezuelan migrants carrying their belonging cross a river32,000 people a day use two legal bridges, and 400 informal crossing points like this, to enter Colombia each day; only 27,000 go home again at night. The rest become permanent refugees out of Venezuela. Photo: Nigel Marsh​
  1. What is the difference between a refugee and an immigrant?
Before we can define who is an immigrant, it’s helpful to understand the subtle differences between a refugee and a migrant.  

While migrants and refugees are people who have left their home countries in search of a better life abroad, their reasons for doing so make all the difference between these two groups.
  • Refugees were forced to flee for their lives because conflict or persecution made it impossible or unsafe to stay in their home country. They are protected by international law from being sent back to their home country while their safety is still a concern.
  • Migrants are people who move from one country or region to another for various reasons such as to find work or get an education to improve their living situations. The term migrant is also used to describe people who are still on the move, like the millions of Syrians fleeing war by embarking upon dangerous sea crossings or journeying on foot to Europe. Not all migrants qualify as refugees and, therefore, are not eligible for the same rights and legal protections under international law.
By contrast, immigrants are people who enter a country with the intention of settling there as citizens or permanent residents. Immigrants have the luxury of choosing which country will be their new home, planning their travel, settling their personal and financial affairs and saying goodbye to their loved ones.
  1. What is a refugee camp?
When conflict in one country drives its people across the border into another country, finding shelter is usually their immediate concern. In order to manage the influx of refugees, the local government, the United Nations, international organizations and NGOs usually work together to hastily build large settlements to provide temporary housing and basic needs such as food, water and medical attention.

Several people barefoot holding umbrellas, standing in a muddy ground in the rain.As monsoon rains hit Cox’s Bazaar, Bangladesh, refugees are at potential risks of landslides and water-borne diseases such as diarrhea and cholera. Today, Cox Bazaar is home to the world's largest refugee camp, housing more than 800,000 Rohingya refugees. Photo: World Vision

There are over 2.1 million people living in refugee camps today. Millions more live in alternative forms of migrant settlements:
  • Unofficial refugee camps, like the ones in Idomeni, Greece and the Calais jungle in France, are formed without the aid or sanction of the local government, to provide physical shelter and direct services to rejected asylum seekers and refugees. They also function as a form of political activism to highlight the plight of asylum seekers and refugees who are caught in limbo between a country they can’t return to and a country that doesn’t want them.
Unlike official refugee camps, unofficial refugee camps are usually run by volunteers who lack experience in refugee aid work and are not humanitarian aid workers. Without support from the government or an official system in place, residents of unofficial refugee camps can be vulnerable to exploitation, trafficking and violence – often at the hands of the people claiming to help them.
  • Urban areas allow refugees to live anonymously in their host country, outside of refugee camps. In these areas, there may be better economic and educational opportunities, health care facilities and sense of community. However, this same anonymity can also make it difficult for aid workers to find them later to ensure that they are adjusting well to life in their new home. The dangers of living as an urban refugee include an increased risk of exploitation, arrest or detention. They can also be forced to accept the worst jobs for very little pay.   
  1. What is life like in a refugee camp?
Although refugee camps are a lifeline for people fleeing danger, life in a refugee camp can also be chaotic – not just for refugees but for aid workers too. The sheer volume of new arrivals – some having walked for hours or even days through battle zones and other dire situations – creates a crowded and hectic scene as they await processing. Whether you’re an asylum seeker or aid worker, it can be easy to feel overwhelmed at the sight of thousands of displaced people desperate for safety.
Many challenges can arise from having so many people – most of whom have witnessed a multitude of atrocities – concentrated in one spot for what may be years at a time.
  • Insufficient funding from governments and aid agencies can lead to a scarcity of food, shortage of clean water, overcrowding and poor sanitation.
  • Shelters are often built very close to each other, sometimes by the refugees themselves, out of materials that can be locally sourced or brought in by relief agencies. Many families frequently share a single dwelling, so privacy is scarce.
  • Conflict, sexual assault and violence are very real threats in refugee camps. Families often learn the hard way that letting their guard down can lead to serious consequences for women and children and must always remain vigilant – even as they sleep.
  • Lack of health care options, accessibility, medical facilities and supplies in refugee camps make it difficult to stem the spread of disease and illness, give birth safely and reduce infant mortality rates, diagnose and treat mental health issues, move around the camp with a disability, etc.
  • Educational opportunities and schools are not always available in refugee camps. In camps where formal education is denied to children, especially to girls, children like Jipara – a Rohingya refugee with a love of learning – must find ways to learn on their own.   
  • Finding ways for refugees to stay productive becomes a challenge the longer they remain in the camps. With no employment opportunities or ways to integrate with society, refugees can’t practice their skills or feel connected to the local community.

A mother holds her baby as the baby's arms is measured.In a Bangladeshi refugee camp, a mother holds her infant as the baby's arm measurement is taken by a World Vision specialist. Upper arm measurements can tell health officials whether a child is receiving adequate nutrition, or not. Photo: World Vision

Despite the challenges, refugee camps can develop a sense of community of their own – it’s all in the way the camps are designed and how people are treated once they’re there. Bidi Bidi camp in Uganda is unlike most refugee camps. Tents dot the landscape organically and newcomers are given a 30x30m plot of land. It’s not much, but it’s enough space for residents to plant a vegetable garden using seeds provided by World Vision. The vegetables they grow are a sustainable food source for their families and the surplus can be sold to their neighbours for income. Despite being the largest refugee camp in the world, there is hope in Bidi Bidi.  
  1. Which countries host the largest refugee populations?
Over two-thirds of the world’s refugees come from just five countries – South Sudan, Myanmar, Afghanistan, Somalia and Syria – and most seek asylum in just a handful of countries:
  • Iran (980,000 refugees)
  • Lebanon (1 million refugees)
  • Pakistan (1.4 million refugees)
  • Uganda (1.4 million refugees)
  • Turkey (3.5 million refugees)
  1. What is the biggest refugee camp in the world?
Until 2017, the biggest refugee camp in the world was Bidi Bidi Refugee Settlement in Uganda. An ongoing civil war and a worsening food crisis in South Sudan forced 285,000 people to flee to neighbouring Uganda, where the tiny village of Bidi Bidi is located right next to the border. The influx of refugees in 2017 had a dramatic effect on the landscape of this small village, turning lush grassland into a sprawling community the size of a small city.  
As of 2018, the biggest refugee camp in the world is Kutupalong, Cox Bazaar, Bangladesh, where over 800,000 mostly Rohingya Muslims live. 
  1. Where are the largest refugee camps in the world located?
The refugee camps with the largest populations in the world are:
  • Kutupalong, Bangladesh: 886,778
  • Bidi Bidi, Uganda: 285,000
  • Dadaab, Kenya: 239,500
  • Kakuma, Kenya: 185,000
  • Nyarugusu, Tanzania: 139,630
  • Zataari, Jordan: 80,140
The refugee crisis in Myanmar, which reignited in August 2017, sparked a mass exodus of Rohingya Muslims towards Bangladesh. By October 2017, Bangladesh had announced plans to build a refugee camp in Cox Bazaar, called Kutupalong, that could accommodate around 800,000 Rohingya Muslims within their borders, which easily topples Bidi Bidi as the largest refugee settlement in the world. 
  1. What is a Syrian refugee?
Since 2011, Syria has been embroiled in a civil war that has devastated the country and its people. Over time, the escalating violence became unbearable for Syrians and 5.1 million fled their homes as refugees while 6.3 million became displaced within the country. Over 400,000 people died – including 55,000 children. Learn more about the Syrian refugee crisis, including how the civil war started, the reasons why Syrians are fleeing, where they’re fleeing to and the response from World Vision.

Three Syrian refugee girls stand in front of their tent in the Bekaa Valley regionSyrian refugee children in a refugee settlement in Bekaa Valley, Lebanon, where World Vision provides WASH relief. Photo: World Vision
  1. What is a refugee crisis?
We’re seeing record-breaking levels of forced displacement around the world since World War II. This is the sobering reality that led the UN to call on world leaders to work together on a response to the steady wave of refugees and migrants who continuously cross international borders searching for asylum – a global refugee crisis that is unfolding right before our eyes.

Each day, 37,000 people are forced to leave everything behind to seek refuge from the conflict and persecution that is tearing their lives apart. Of the 70.8 million people who were displaced in 2019, there were:
  • 41.3 million internally displaced people;
  • 25.4 million refugees minors; and
  • 3.5 million asylum seekers.
Half of the world’s population of refugees are children and over 173,000 are estimated to be unaccompanied by or separated from their families.  

What led to this spike in numbers? The majority of refugees was fleeing armed conflicts in Syria, Afghanistan, Burundi, Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Myanmar, South Sudan, Sudan, Ukraine and Yemen.

It can be said that the journey out of these conflict zones is often even more perilous. Opportunists take advantage of the desperate situation to charge vulnerable migrants exorbitant fees to be smuggled across an international border by any means necessary, often with tragic results. For years, human smugglers have been making a living by packing people aboard rickety boats or dinghies that will take them across the Mediterranean Sea, known to be the world’s deadliest crossing for migrants.

For hundreds of thousands of migrants, the risk paid off and they made it to the shores of Italy or Greece. The same can’t be said for over 33,000 migrants who were lost at sea – they paid the ultimate price.
  1. What was Canada’s response to the refugee crisis?
As of January 2017, the federal government worked together with Canadians, including private sponsors, NGOs and all levels of government to welcome more than 40,000 Syrian refugees into Canada. This figure includes:
  • 21,876 government-assisted refugees
  • 3,931 blended visa office-referred refugees
  • 14,274 privately sponsored refugees
Canada’s generosity includes giving to various international efforts to support the Syrian people, amounting to over $1 billion in humanitarian, development and security assistance in response to the Syrian refugee crisis.  
  1. What can I do to help?
The statistics may be grim but when Canadians stand together against the global refugee crisis, we’re sending a message of hope to the men, women and children who are fleeing threats of violence, hunger, abuse and exploitation. When you give through our Raw Hope program, your donation provides live-saving resources to children who are living in the world’s most dangerous places.