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9 Facts About Refugees

Dadaab, Kenya, August 25, 2011. (Photo for LWR by Jonathan Ernst)

What is the definition of a refugee? How many refugees are there around the world? What causes people to become refugees?

Here are 9 facts about refugees:

1. Refugees have fled persecution or war

In order to officially be considered a refugee, a person must have suffered persecution on account of race, religion, nationality, political opinion, because they are part of a persecuted social group, or because they’re fleeing war. Those people who claim to be refugees, but whose cases haven’t been fully evaluated may instead be defined as “asylum seekers.”

2. Refugees have crossed an international border

There are lots of people who are forced to leave their home because of persecution or war. But not all of them are considered refugees. People who have fled their home, but stayed within their own country are considered “internally displaced,” or “internally displaced persons” (IDPs). In 2014, it was estimated that there were 38 million IDPs around the world. [source]

3. Both LWR and the UNHCR began in response to World War II, with the intent of disbanding shortly after

Lutheran World Relief was founded in 1945 as a way for Lutherans in the United States to send aid and relief to their (often literal) brothers and sisters in Europe affected by the War. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) was formed in 1950 to help the 40 million refugees across Europe.[source] Both organizations had the intention of closing up shop within a few years, but have continued their missions over the past sixty years as new needs have arisen.

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children sitting around a table eating
A program feeding children in Germany after World War II, sponsored by LWR. Photo courtesy of the ELCA Archives

4. Almost half of all refugees are children

Many of these children may spend their entire life away from home. And these children are far more vulnerable to abuse, neglect, or other types of violence. [source]

woman and four children
A family in the refugee camp in Dadaab, Kenya. Photo by Jonathan Ernst

5. There are currently 21 million refugees worldwide

The UNHCR estimates that, as of 2015, there were just over 21 million refugees around the world. [source] This is higher than the year before. Which brings us to our next fact…

6. There are currently nearly 5 million Syrian refugees

The UNHCR currently has registered 4.8 million Syrian refugees, and, as of November 2016, predicts 8.7 million to be displaced inside Syria in 2016.  [source] Other countries in the region have also been affected by conflict. In Yemen, over 2 million people have been internally displaced.  [source]

two paper drawings, surrounded by childrens' hands
Syrian refugee children draw pictures in the children’s activity tent at Islahiye refugee camp in Turkey. © Jodi Hilton/IRIN

7. There are nearly 2.5 million refugees in Southwest Asia

The conflicts in Afghanistan and Pakistan over the past decade have caused millions of people to flee their countries. But many are also beginning to return home. Over the past ten years, nearly 6 million refugees have moved back into Afghanistan and in the 2016, 117,000 Afghan refugees have returned from Pakistan. [source] However, there is still a huge concern for the safety and wellbeing of people moving in and out of this region, and humanitarian access is limited.

8. Churches have housed refugees for centuries

While the term sanctuary has its roots in sacred spaces (the Latin word sanctuarium refers to a place for holy things or holy people), the first Council of Orléans, in 511 AD, established the right of sanctuary, decreeing that people can find refuge from persecution in churches. [source]

Elaborate ring on door of Church
Sanctuary ring on a door of Notre-Dame de Paris (France). In Middle Ages, grasping this kind of ring on a church door gave the right of asylum. Photo: Myrabella / Wikimedia Commons

9. Lutherans play a huge role in the lives of refugees

From prevention to solution, various Lutheran churches and organizations each play important roles in the life of refugees. LWR works in countries to end the conditions that often spiral downward, helping people living in poverty earn more income, find a voice in their community and avoid harassment or cruelty.

When people are forced to leave their home country, Lutherans are there to help. LWR and the Lutheran World Federation help Sudanese refugees at the Kakuma camp, and Somali refugees in Dadaab, both in northern Kenya. We help Karen refugees on the border of Burma and Thailand. And we are sending Quilts & Kits to provide basic needs for many of the current Syrian refugees.

a young boy holds an LWR Quilt with two women behind him
A family displays one of their LWR Quilts inside their bamboo shelter at Mae La, the largest of nine camps that serve Burmese refugees along the Thai-Burma border.

But it doesn’t stop there. Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Services is a force in helping refugees from around the world get settled in the United States, with the services and support they need to thrive.

Wellwishers offer warm clothing to Syrians after they arrived on a train from Budapest's Keleti station at the railway station of the airport in Frankfurt, Germany
REUTERS/Kai Pfaffenbach, courtesy of

Help the Refugees and Migrants in Europe

Thousands of refugees and migrants from Northern Africa, Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq are flowing into Europe. The UN Refugee Agency reports that more than 2,000 refugees are arriving in Hungary daily, before moving on to other European countries.

Lutheran World Relief is shipping Mission Quilts, Baby Care Kits and Personal Care Kits to Serbia to distribute to refugees and migrants. LWR is also supporting ACT Alliance members in providing hygiene items, winter coats and blankets, emergency shelter and psychosocial support.

Learn more»

8 thoughts on “9 Facts About Refugees

  1. My father built homes over in Sudan about 30 years ago and he said they have absolutely nothing. …dirt floors, they eat pigeon cooked on a little outdoor grill in the ground, a hose & hole in the ground for bathroom….and he was told NOT to give handouts or was all a political pawn game …even back then.. It must be quite a task for LWR, to just get in there and be able to help. Thank you to all those who work so hard and maybe even risk their lives for this great humanitarian effort..

    It seems there has been repression there forever…new political winds must have changed for even the worse?….or is the new age of social media and world awareness finally waking people up? any thoughts?

    1. Good questions, Jenny. Politics is often complicated (even here in the US!) and can sometimes get in the way of helping people. Social media and the explosion of information has definitely made it easier for us to quickly see the needs of people all around the world.

      Determining the most effective response can be difficult, which is why it’s necessary to have local perspectives and global expertise. LWR’s expert staff work with local partner organizations around the world, so we can bring our global perspective to the real, unique local needs.

  2. interesting comments. knowing the political system here and other seas, are you surprised? Its been going on for years, and shows no signs of slowing or stopping. Remember the Vietnam Boat people who showed up on the BC Shores.

  3. Most of these Syrian refugees are economic migrants from a variety of countries from the Middle East. They are predominantly healthy young men, late teens to mid thirties, who should be in their country fighting for it. I may sound callous but they are only here for what they can get, fighting their way to Germany to get what they want rather than finding peace. Islam teaches Muslims that they are superior to kufirs or non-Muslims and that these benefits and houses are due to them as jizya or a tax imposed onto kufirs for the possible right to live. Islam is not compatible with democracy or the UN Convention of Human Rights as stated on several occasions by the EU Court of Human Rights. At least 80% of these people will stay on benefits as they won’t be able to work being uneducated and unwilling to do so. Due to the huge number of males arriving, rape will increase, both the Danish and Swedish police have stated that all rapes have been committed by Muslims. The proportion of Muslims in jails is extreme when you consider the percentage of them in the community. Anti-Semitism will increase, France now has to have armed soldiers to protect Jews and many have left as they have done in Sweden. In other words, not all refugees are refugees and some may not be good for the country that takes them in. Cameron is taking them from the camps, quite right.

    1. I am glad this young men are not fighting for their country with weapons but with their feet – to wake us up. We need change in the way we look at politics and see: we are living in one world and are neighbors who care about one another.
      Islam is a religion like Chirstianity teaching about a compassionate and mercyful God.
      When I look around there is violence committed by different people with different backgrounds.
      For me that is the bottom line: there are people who use violence to get what they want – and there are people, the majority, who live and refuse to get violent and nourish what is good in them. I keep company with them and spread the word 😉

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