Unpacking the Numbers on Global Refugees

Yesterday, on the eve of today’s World Refugee Day, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) released its annual Global Trends report, finding that 65.6 million people are forcibly displaced—the highest number since World War II.



But while references to a global refugee “crisis” have become increasingly common, unpacking the numbers reveals a more nuanced story. For starters, two-thirds of the world’s 65.6 million displaced remain within the borders of their own countries. As internally displaced persons (IDPs), they are often more vulnerable and receive less assistance than those who cross international borders. As I have argued elsewhere, IDPs deserve much more attention, but they pose a different kind of challenge to the international community than refugees crossing borders in search of protection.


Importantly, most of the growth in global displacement figures comes from this internal displacement. And if we’re honest, at least some of that increase is due to greater awareness of the phenomenon of internal displacement and improvements in data collection. The number of IDPs displaced by conflict has almost doubled since 1992—from 25 million to 40.3 million—while the number of refugees under UNHCR’s mandate has actually slightly decreased in the same time period—from 17.8 million in 1992 to 17.2 million in 2016.


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