This World Refugee Day, a record 65.6 million people worldwide are displaced in part due to war, famine, and political upheaval. Of those, roughly 22.5 million have registered as refugees in a host country, according to a United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) report out this week.
In its report, the U.N. found that Syria, currently in the midst of a civil war, led with the highest total number of refugees fleeing. Meanwhile, an end to peace efforts in South Sudan has led to 737,400 people fleeing the country — the fastest growing displacement of people in the world.
With millions fleeing from volatile situations around the globe, many Western countries like the United States remain staunchly opposed to resettling refugees within their borders. Between October 2016 and early June 2017, 46,835 refugees were resettled in the United States. But the future of refugee resettlement is in question, with President Donald Trump’s 2018 fiscal year budget aiming to cut 31 percent from refugee resettlement programs, and legislation like the Muslim ban further targeting those seeking asylum and sanctuary.
But this legislation won’t stop desperate people from leaving their homes in search of safety. Here are the top five countries people are fleeing and why:
Suffering under the weight of decades of war, Afghanistan’s refugee crisis is years in the making. Ripped apart by the former Soviet Union as well as various Western powers, including the British Empire and the United States, Afghanistan has also experienced civil war and severe problems with militancy and extremism. Worsening the situation is the repressive and brutal Taliban, which has terrorized Afghan civilians and forced many to flee their homes. Millions of Afghans are internally displaced, while many more have sought asylum in Europe. A large number also live in Pakistan and Iran, Afghanistan’s neighbors.
Complicating the issue is Afghanistan’s strained relationship with neighboring Pakistan, which has hosted Afghan refugees for much of the last 40 years. Until recently, Pakistan held around 1.5 million registered Afghan refugees, with another million believed to be without documentation, many of whom live in the provinces of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan. But following a border clash with Afghanistan in 2016, the Pakistani government has begun cracking down, refusing to register new refugees and working to send many back over the border. Some 606,905 refugees were repatriated to Afghanistan in 2016 from Pakistan according to UNHCR — the highest number since 2005.
Fear of being sent back dominates life for many Afghan refugees, with good reason. Despite the best efforts of its citizens, Afghanistan remains in a state of war, experiencing daily bombings and attacks. While numerous reports have challenged the Western view of Afghanistan as bleak and lifeless, it’s still far from safe. That reality is one some countries are grappling with — including Germany, whose forced repatriation of Afghans has drawn protests and censure.
Sayed Aliraza, an Afghan refugee who spoke with the New York Times in 2015, expressed frustration with approaches like Germany’s.
“I understand — the government of Germany doesn’t have place for refugees,” Aliraza said. “But we are also human. We don’t have any security there [in Afghanistan]. That is the reality. Afghanistan is not secure, and the government of Germany knows this.”
Meanwhile, Afghanistan has seen an uptick in violence recently. In May, at least 80 people were killed and hundreds wounded when a bomb went off in Kabul — an attack that came only a month after more than 140 Afghan soldiers were killed on a military base in the country’s northern region. Smaller-scale attacks have occurred on a weekly basis as well; on Sunday, a suicide bomber in eastern Afghanistan killed at least six police officers.
Somalia has continuously been in turmoil because of its civil war that began in 1991. Since that time, more than 1 million people have left the country while another million are internally displaced. Roughly 3 million people in the country are at risk of starvation from a widespread food shortage, according to the United Nations.
In March, President Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed declared a state of disaster because of severe drought, which has affected 6.2 million people living in the country. That month, 110 people died from famine and diarrhea in the south of the country, with Prime Minister Hassan Ali Khaire urging Somalis “wherever they are to help and save the dying.” Because of unsanitary conditions in camps build by internally displaced people, sanitation facilities have been inadequate and have led to outbreaks of cholera.
Particularly in rural southwestern Somalia, people face incalculable danger in accessing basic necessities because these areas are controlled by the Islamist militant group al-Shabab, which regularly attacks federal government forces in Somalia. In the capital of Mogadishu, at least ten people died during a car bomb attack on Tuesday, days after a suicide bomber attacked a hotel and killed 31 people. Al-Shabab militants also attacked a military base earlier this month and killed upwards of 61 soldiers, following similar assaults on bases in Somalia and nearby Kenya.
Since the beginning of this year, 2,855 Somalis have escaped westward to Ethiopia. Many underestimate how long it takes to get to neighboring countries and starve to death along the way. Kenya, which has threatened to close two of its biggest refugee camps holding an estimated 492,046 Somali refugees, has already sent back 65,000 people to Somalia, citing potential economic and security reasons as its rationale. The Kenyan government issued a directive giving Somalis until May 2017 to return, but an eleventh-hour ruling by the Kenyan High Court in February blocked the order for the camps closures. In his decision, a high court judge nulled and voided the directive, saying it violates Kenya’s responsibility to people in vulnerable situations.
“We left Somalia and crossed the border because of the drought,” Kula Ali, a man who left Somalia with his wife and seven children for Ethiopia, told the International Organization for Migration. “It took us two days by minibus to get to the border. We had to pay a big amount and the vehicle was full of people and we only brought a small amount of food and water with us,” Ali said of the exhausting journey.
Syria has been in the midst of a devastating civil war since 2011. Dictator Bashar al-Assad’s regime is engaged in an ongoing stalemate with various rebel factions, in addition to ISIS, a militant group that has targeted both sides of the war.
Caught in the middle, Syrian civilians have suffered unthinkable atrocities, forcing half of the country’s population to leave their homes and flee. According to UNHCR, there are at least 6.3 million internally displaced Syrians, with 13.5 million in need more generally, and 4.53 million in besieged and hard-to-reach areas. As of 2017, at least 5 million Syrians have left the country.
But that’s just within the region — International Rescue Committee has contested the 5 million number, arguing that it overlooks the 1.2 million Syrian refugees currently seeking asylum in Europe.
Life in Syria under war has been called “worse than death,” with bombs reigning down on neighborhoods and necessities like food, water, and medicine running scarce. After six years of war, life has come to a standstill for many, leaving residents traumatized and unable to carry on with their lives. Essa Essa, a 27-year-old NGO field projects officer, described the situation to Fox News in April.
“All the time, you will be afraid of aircraft and you don’t know when one will strike. You will be afraid when your children go to play or when they go to school that they won’t come home. You will not be safe in your house, maybe the regime bombed your house,” Essa said. “You know that maybe you will die when you walk in the street or go to pray in a mosque. You wonder if you will die when you try to buy something for your children to eat, or your babies won’t wake up or you won’t wake up to see your babies grow up. It’s hard to find work, it’s hard to find medications. People suffer in every way.”
Most Syrian refugees are concentrated in the neighboring countries of Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey, where many live below the poverty line and lack access to financial resources. But while Turkey currently hosts 3 million Syrian refugees, it is a larger country than its neighbors. By contrast, Jordan, a country of about 7 million people, hosts 656,000, while Lebanon, with a million Syrian refugees, has a population of fewer than 6 million.
Despite the strain on other countries, Western nations remain split on approaching the crisis, with countries like Poland and Hungary working to avoid taking in refugees, while leaders like German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau have advocated for taking in more. U.S. President Donald Trump has made his stance on the issue clear, working to ban Syrian refugees from the United States and accusing Syrians of posing a threat to U.S. citizens.
“We want to ensure that we are not admitting into our country the very threats our soldiers are fighting overseas,” Trump said while signing the original Muslim ban that put an indefinite hold on the resettlement of Syrian refugees. “We only want to admit those into our country who will support our country and love deeply our people.”
South Sudan, the youngest country in the world, has been beset by violence since 2013 two years after it broke away from Sudan in a referendum vote in 2011. As of December 2016, one in four people in the country have been forcibly displaced. People are fleeing South Sudan due to growing famine and drought conditions. Donor countries have failed to raise $1.4 billion the UNHCR said was needed to respond to refugee support as the country faces a desperate lack of basic services, shelter, food, and accommodations.
The humanitarian crisis has only gotten worse since armed clashes broke out in the capital of Juba in July 2016, with conflict spreading to other areas. In 2016, more than 779,000 South Sudanese people registered as refugees in other countries, according to United Nations data, with more than 281,000 new displacements in areas previously considered stable. There are currently more than 900,000 South Sudanese living in the host country of Uganda, which says it faces a $2 billion funding shortfall to accommodate these refugees. In total, as of March 2017, more than 1.7 million South Sudanese refugees have fled to the Central African Republic, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Ethiopia, Kenya, Sudan, and Uganda.
“My husband was killed in the war which, in addition to the shortage of food, made me decide to leave my home, everything, behind,” Nyawet Tut, a South Sudanese mother of five, told UNHCR staff at a temporary way station in Ethiopia. She fled her home country with five children after soldiers set fire to her village and killed five of her relatives.
Democratic Republic of the Congo
Two decades of war, famine, and disease have not abated in a country where recent political insecurity and violent clashes have riled ethnic tensions.
In spite of a New Year’s Eve pact to hold elections this year, President Joseph Kabila has refused to step down, a decision that has led to violent protests across the country. The Congolese president rose to power in 2001 after his father President Laurent Kabila was assassinated, and has served two consecutive terms since then.
An estimated 30,000 people have fled to neighboring Angola in part due to the deadly violence that broke out in the postponement of presidential elections. On top of that, 922,000 people were internally displaced within the DRC last year, according to the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre report, granting it the grim distinction of being the country with the highest number of internally displaced people thanks to conflict.
Particularly in the North and South Kivu region of the country, people have to deal with internecine conflicts between armed groups. Last year, humanitarian efforts were hampered by the closure of five displacement camps. The Congolese government justified the camps’ closures by saying parts of North Kivu are stable and that some camps have become hotspots for anti-government rebels. But newly arrived refugees are mostly coming from the Kasai province, where they are at risk of “physical mutilation, killing, sexual violence, arbitrary arrest and detention in inhumane conditions,” according to the United Nations. From August 2016 to April 2017, UN investigators have found upwards of 40 mass graves in the country.
In a major health setback, the World Health Organization said two outbreaks of polio — with at least four cases — were found in the country in June, with “further national spread of these strains to be high, and the risk of international spread to be medium.”
“DRC is the world’s most forgotten crisis,” Ulrika Blom, the Norwegian Refugee Council’s Country Director in DRC, said. “Humanitarian needs here are immense. But despite over 7 million people needing aid, the US$813 million international aid appeal is only 20 per cent funded.”