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Citizenship

12 things you need to know about refugees

Sudanese refugees in Iridimi Camp in Chad | Flickr: UN Photo/Eskinder Debebe

It’s hard to talk about refugees because the word describes so many people from all parts of the world. It describes doctors and farmers in Kenya, Syrian orphans struggling in crowded camps, and young people succeeding in college in Canada.

I worked with refugees for one year in Salt Lake City, UT, so I’ll presume to make this one, bold statement: If refugees have anything in common at all, it’s their commitment to improving their lives.

Some of the people I worked with shared stories so dark and unbelievable I could hardly stand to listen. But what surprised me most was that they weren’t interested in pity or looking back. Instead, they were determined to keep moving forward, at a snail’s pace if necessary.

Refugees, or really displaced persons in general, are some of the world’s most vulnerable people. But I worry that because there is constantly a new crisis in the news, it’s easy to dismiss them and forget that we’re talking about individual people whose lives have been completely disrupted.

Every displaced person deserves our attention, and it’s my hope that this list can act as an introduction. While I can’t possibly include everything, this is a general list of things you should know that I hope will provide a little insight into who today’s refugees are.

Kosovar refugees fleeing their homeland in 1999 (Blace area, The former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia) | Flickr: UN Photo/R LeMoyne

1. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), today there are more than 51 million people who have been displaced by violence and conflict. These include internally displaced persons, refugees and asylum seekers.

2. The United Nations defines a refugee as “someone who fled his or her home and country owing to “a well-founded fear of persecution because of his/her race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion”. The definition also includes people fleeing natural and man made disasters.

3. If you look for it, you’ll notice the word “refugee” is used incorrectly by many to refer to “displaced persons” generally. In the movie Hotel Rwanda, for example, the people seeking refuge in the hotel are not technically refugees because they have not left their home country nor have they officially had their status confirmed (I know, it’s confusing.)

Children in Dakhla Refugee Camp, 2003 Algeria. | Flickr: UN Photo/Evan Schneider

4. Asylum seekers are people who have fled to a new country seeking refugee status, but who have not yet had their claim evaluated. I used to work with a man who was previously responsible for determining which asylum seekers had a legal case. He confided that it was incredibly sad work because the vast majority of his cases fled for good reason, but very few fit within the narrow restrictions necessary to obtain refugee status.

5. If you’ve ever wondered why refugee crisis take so long to resolve, try this on for size: the world’s refugee population is greater than that of Spain, Canada, or South Korea.

6. As of June 2014, the largest refugee nationalities were Afghans, Syrians, and Somalis, making up more than half of all global refugee populations.

A man awaits a Human Rights Community Awareness Program for Internally Displaced Persons belonging to the Dinka and Nuer ethnic groups in South Sudan. | Flickr: UN Photo/JC McIlwaine

7. While we tend to hear more about refugees in the news, there are actually twice as many internally displaced persons around the world. In 2013, for instance, there were 16.7 million refugees and 33.3 million internally displaced persons.

8. It’s a common misconception that all refugees live in refugee camps. In fact, more than two thirds of refugees live outside of camps in cities and villages, generally in overcrowded apartments shared between families.

9. Children make up about half of all refugees (46%), and interrupting their schooling is a serious concern. For this reason, organizations like the UNHCR and the International Rescue Committee prioritize education. Sadly, this doesn’t guarantee all kids will go to school, as many are forced to stay at home to help their parents and take care of their siblings.

A little girl from Myanmar takes classes in a refugee camp in Eastern Bangladesh. | Flickr: United Nations Development Program

10. As many as 35% of the world’s refugees are torture survivors. In addition to dealing with physical injuries caused by the trauma, these people often suffer from multiple mental health issues that can make recovery incredibly difficult. Particularly within the stressful life of a refugee.

11. When refugees cannot return home and are unable to stay in the country where they initially sought refuge, the UNHCR will resettle them to a third country. These people are rare- only 1% of refugees are submitted by the agency for resettlement.

12. According to UNHCR, “the United States is the world's top resettlement country, while Australia, Canada and the Nordic countries also provide a sizeable number of places annually.”

While it would be nice to believe that life gets easier for refugees after resettlement, the majority find this is not (immediately) the case. Refugees often find it incredibly difficult to integrate into their new home with language and cultural barriers weighing them down.


Let’s get involved. If you live in a developed country, there’s a good chance that refugees live in your own community. Start a conversation! Better yet, take it a step further. If you see someone who you can tell is new to the country, be friendly and welcoming. Immigrants and refugees are faced with a lot of the same obstacles, and making them feel welcome is an easy way to make them feel at home in their new home. Isn’t that what being a global citizen is all about?

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Christina Nuñez