Here’s what you need to know about the global refugee crisis for World Refugee Day, 2024.

Last week, the United Nations High Commissioner of Refugees (UNHCR) released its latest Global Trends Report, which covers global displacement through the end of 2023. 

Over the last few years, we’ve reported on an unprecedented crisis of both international and internal displacement. Unfortunately, as the UNHCR reveals, 2023 did not show any signs of that crisis going away: Over 117 million people were newly displaced last year, as a result of persecution, conflict, violence, and human rights violations (among other causes). 

Over 117 million people around the world were newly-displaced in just the last year.

In just a decade, the number of refugees around the world has nearly doubled, and at one point in 2023 we exceeded 40 million refugees around the world. As of the beginning of 2024, the number of refugees under UNHCR protection (accounting for people who returned home over the year) was 37.6 million. The UNHCR estimates that this number will continue to grow this year.

How did it get to be so bad? What does this mean for the tens of millions of people who were forced to leave home? Here’s what you need to know about the global refugee crisis in 2024.

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When did the refugee crisis start?

There isn’t a clear moment we can pinpoint as the “start” of the crisis. The UNHCR was founded in 1950 and began keeping records on refugee populations in 1951, which also means we have a limited range of data. Every year since the start of the UNHCR’s data has seen at least 1.6 million registered refugees around the world, but obviously there were also larger populations before then when you look at the history of the 20th Century (estimates place the total number of people displaced by World War II at around 50 million). 

Refugee populations began to grow in the 1960s and 1970s, owing to major, protracted conflicts in Afghanistan, Bangladesh, and Vietnam and a number of smaller, localized conflicts. That increased through the 1980s and 1990s with large displacements coming out of Iraq, Rwanda, and Yugoslavia. Since 1982, UNHCR has almost always had at least 10 million refugees under its protection. 

All of this to say: The current crisis didn’t happen overnight. 

In just ten years, the number of refugees around the world has more than tripled, from nearly 11.7 million in 2013 to 37.6 million in 2023.

Okay, so when did it get so bad?

This is a bit easier to pinpoint. Between 2008 and 2012, the global refugee population sat at around 10.5 million people. In 2013, that number went up to nearly 11.7 million, and in 2014 it grew again to 14.3 million. 

The crisis in Syria was a key tipping point. In 2012, there were 729,000 Syrian refugees registered with UNHCR. The following year, there were nearly 2.5 million — an increase of nearly 250% year over year. That number grew to as many as 6.8 million Syrian refugees in 2021, and Syria remains the world’s largest refugee crisis at the beginning of 2024. In 2016, conflict in South Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo also led to more refugees seeking shelter in neighboring countries. The following year, the Rohingya crisis led to another massive displacement. In the last two years, renewed crisis in Afghanistan, Sudan, and Ukraine have also tipped the scale. 

As conflicts become more and more protracted, not only do refugees not return home as quickly as they have in previous generations, but we also see more waves of displacement as situations deteriorate.

A Syrian refugee woman stands with her child in front of their tent in Lebanon. (Photo: Dalia Khamissy / Concern Worldwide)A boy flies a kite in a protection of civilians (POC) site in Juba, South Sudan.Refugees from Sudan arrive in Chad.

What else is causing the refugee crisis?

Conflict is a key driver of displacement and one of the key reasons many people become refugees. 73% of all refugees under UNHCR protection originate from just five countries — Afghanistan, Syria, Venezuela, Ukraine, and South Sudan — all of which have some element of violence or conflict driving displacement. 

Recent UN figures show that, on average, 44,000 people leave their homes due to conflict and persecution every day. Conflict and violence, however, are not the only cause of the global refugee crisis, nor are they the only conditions under which a person can be granted refugee status. Here are three other key causes of displacement:

1. Violation of Human Rights/Persecution

This is where terminology can get a bit technical; while conflict is almost always a form of violence, not all forms of violence are, by definition, conflict. And still, many people become refugees due to persecutions that violate their human rights. Take, for instance, the Rohingya crisis; one of the biggest current refugee crises. Violence directed at the Rohingya people in Rakhine State is a fundamental violation of their human rights at a mass scale. 


2. Hunger and Famine

Conflict and climate change are two of the biggest contributors to mass migration, though famine and famine-like conditions is another key factor. Hunger and migration go hand-in-hand, as hunger is both a danger that threatens the lives of people forced to leave their homes, and a key influence on their decisions about when and where to move. 

3. Climate Change

The effects of climate change touch on a number of related factors, including conflict and hunger. The number of climate refugees has been on the rise in recent years due to climate disasters growing in terms of destruction and frequency, and the UN estimates that 20 million people are displaced within their own countries each year due to similar conditions. 

A quick note here on semantics: The UN doesn’t normally grant refugee status to people escaping climate change-related issues. However, this is an undeniable issue and cause for forced migration and one that often goes hand-in-hand with conflict.

Why is the refugee crisis a problem?

For starters, it’s not because of the refugees themselves. In most cases they aren’t able to legally work in the countries where they are temporarily living — they often can’t even get formal housing — so the myth of refugees coming to steal jobs and affect the housing market is just that: a myth. 

Refugees are more likely to face threats than members of their host communities, especially women and children, who are targets for gender-based violence, exploitation, and assault. With limited options for food and basic needs, they also face enormous barriers to accessing even the most basic essentials. 

People receive hygiene kits at Khanke IDP site in Duhok in Iraq. (Photo: George Henton / Concern Worldwide.)
People receive hygiene kits at Khanke IDP site in Duhok in Iraq. (Photo: George Henton / Concern Worldwide.)

Part of the problem with the current crisis is one of capacity: Providing the bare necessities to nearly 40 million refugees and ensuring protection of their rights is, to say the least, a challenge. Further complicating this is that many refugees are hosted in countries that are also prone to conflict, violence, and insecurity, making supplies and support that much harder to get to the right people. 

That said, host communities can also face pressure. Many of the countries that take in the most refugees are neighboring nations, and also facing conflict and limited resources. Temporary displacement is one thing, but the protracted nature of most conflicts now means that host communities with limited resources can be left with refugee communities for years, if not decades.

What rights do refugees have?

The United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights guarantees the equal rights of all human beings. This includes the right to seek asylum from persecution in other countries. In 1951, the UN also published the Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees. In 1998, it published the Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement. Both of these are intended to protect the rights of displaced people. Yet the rights of displaced people are violated on a daily basis.

Upholding the rights of refugees (and internally displaced people) is one of the biggest priorities for organizations responding to the crisis. Many refugees just want to go home, but this is often not possible due to the dangers faced at home. In the meantime, there are also some basic aspects of life that need to be considered while a refugee is living in displacement, including:

  • Food
  • Water
  • Shelter or housing
  • Healthcare, including maternal health and mental health
  • Education
  • Employment and financial support
  • Safety and protection
Children carry containers of water after filling them at a UNICEF borehole inside Adré refugee settlement in Chad. (Photo: Donaig Le Du/UNICEF)Maram struggles to keep her children warm in the brutal Lebanon winter. (Photo: Gavin Douglas/Concern Worldwide)Ukrainian refugees arrive in Romania, March 2022.

How do we solve the refugee crisis?

Ultimately, it’s about ending conflict, violence, and persecution. But in the meantime, there are some other solutions that the UN currently recognizes: 

1. Returning Home

This happens when circumstances enable refugees to return to their homes voluntarily and safely. Many refugees want to rebuild their lives in their homes, although this is entirely dependent upon whether or not it is safe for them to do so. 

2. Local Integration

Local integration happens when refugees are invited to remain permanently where they initially settled after fleeing their homes. This option provides continuity and stability, enabling displaced communities to begin working and resume their daily activities.

3. Resettlement

Resettlement or relocation is a process that allows refugees to voluntarily settle in a new, third country. It enables people to begin a new chapter of their lives. Since most conflicts today last for extended and indeterminate periods of time, more efforts and resources are focusing on increasing opportunities for this as an option.


Concern’s work with refugees

Emergency response is part of Concern’s DNA and working with refugee communities in this context has become a core skill for our teams over the last six decades. 

We work with both refugee communities and host countries to ease the pressure that mass displacement can put on a host community. In addition to meeting the frontline needs  — including food, shelter, protection, and other non-food essentials — we also work with refugees on longer-term initiatives, including skill-building and livelihood development and psychosocial support. 

We also put a special focus on the needs of child refugees (who make up 40% of the global refugee population), including education, family support, and providing safe spaces where they can play and enjoy their childhood. 

In 2023, we responded to 66 emergencies in 20 countries, reaching nearly 15.5 million people. This included:

  • Playing an essential role in NGO coordination in Chad and collaborating with a consortium of NGOs on the cross-border response to support Sudanese refugees. 
  • Rehabilitating temporary shelters in Lebanon, including preparing them for harsh winter conditions, in communities hosting a total of 39,700 Syrian refugees.
  • Working with nearly 84,000 Rohingya refugees in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh on ways of preventing malnutrition within their families.