Refugees have been all over the news.

They are drowning at the hands of smugglers; they are being placed in sprawling camps with little access to services; and they are even being robbed by the mafia. Everywhere from Germany to Argentina, refugees are amassing at faster rates than ever before. 

In fact, there have never been more forcibly-displaced people at any point in human history. 

But too often, it seems, the focus is placed on where refugees are running to, and not what they’re running from.  

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Take action: Protect Children Fleeing Persecution and Conflict

So, what makes a refugee? And how do people become refugees? 

The definition of a “refugee” has changed over the years — from Protestants fleeing religious persecution in France in the 17th century to Syrians fleeing bombs in the 21st.  

The term “refugee” was not officially defined in international law until the 1951 Refugee Convention. This came in response to the first great refugee crisis of the 20th century, the Second World War — which forcibly displaced around 50 million worldwide. 

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The initial definition of “refugee” was pretty narrow. 

In 1951, a mere 26 countries convened in Geneva to define a refugee as a person who has a “well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion” and who, on account of that fear “is unwilling to return to [their country of origin].” 

Read More: 11 Facts About the 65 Million Refugees in the World

The 1967 Convention and Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees updated this definition, which had previously only included refugees within Europe who were displaced before 1951. 

But between 1967 and now, the number of refugees and displaced persons has skyrocketed. 

In 1967 there were just over 2 million refugees around the world. In 2017, there were 17 million — and that’s not including the 5 million Palestinians, who are registered under the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, not UNHCR. 

As the refugee population has changed, so too has the need for a more encapsulating definition of what defines a refugee.

With a growing global population, combined with human conflict and environmental change, people are becoming refugees for more reasons than ever before. Global Citizen is bringing you five of the biggest ones:  

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1. Religious/National/Social/Racial/Political Persecution

The most common reason people become refugees is persecution — which can take on many forms: religious, national, social, racial, or political.

When it comes to religious refugees in the United States, the split between Christians and Muslims is quite even. According to Pew, 46% of refugees in 2016 who came to the US were Muslim and 44% Christian; 10% were other, including Hindus, Buddhists, and Jews. 

Around the world, religious refugees are everywhere: from Muslims persecuted in Myanmar to Christians in the Central African Republic to Hindus in Pakistan.  

Many famous individuals have been, at one point or another, a political refugee. This includes Gloria Estefan (who fled the Castro regime in Cuba), Alexander Ginsburg (who fled the Kremlin during the Cold War), and the Dalai Lama (Tibet’s leader-in-exile). 

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2. War 

Most of history’s refugees have been the direct or indirect product of war. 

Currently, the largest group of refugees in the world are fleeing civil conflict in Syria, which has been raging since 2011 and has killed 400,000 Syrians and displaced 6.3 million internally. Another 5 million have left the country entirely. 

But before Syria, refugees fled wars in Iraq and Afghanistan in droves in the early 1980s, 90s and 2000s. Afghanistan, notably, had the largest number of refugees of any country in the world for more than two decades between 1981 and 2013, before being overtaken by Syria that year. 

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3. Gender/Sexual Orientation

This past June, France became the first country to accept a gay Chechen refugee — a monumental decision that had global reverberations. 

The UNHCR updated its guidelines to include refugees for reasons of gender or sexual orientation in 2012. 

“It is widely documented that LGBTI individuals are the targets of killings, sexual and gender-based violence, physical attacks, torture, arbitrary detention, accusations of immoral or deviant behavior, denial of the rights to assembly, expression and information, and discrimination in employment, health and education in all regions around the world,” the organization wrote. 

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4. Hunger  

It’s estimated that 20 million people in four North African and Middle Eastern countries — Somalia, South Sudan, Nigeria, and Yemen — are facing extreme drought, and many of these individuals are becoming refugees, forced from their homelands in search of stable food sources. 

There are about 17 million displaced persons across the African continent, the Guardian reports, and only a small proportion of them are reaching the shores of the European continent. Many end up in sprawling, informal refugee camps like the town of Monguno in northeastern Nigeria

Refugees fleeing hunger can, of course, also be escaping from other factors at the same time, including the rise of extremist groups like Boko Haram in Nigeria and the impacts of climate change. 

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5. Climate Change 

It’s estimated that in the next 83 years, a stunning 13 million coastal dwellers could be displaced by climate change, joining the teeming throngs of refugees and displaced people.

Officially, climate change is not yet a valid reason for an asylum claim. In 2013, the first climate change refugee asylum case was shot down by the New Zealand High Court when a Kiribati man attempted to claim that status by law. 

But as man-made climate change worsens, and oceans rise, the 1951 and 1967 conventions may need to expand their scope. 


Demand Equity

5 Of The Biggest Reasons Why People Become Refugees

By Phineas Rueckert