Refugees and asylum seekers

Most refugees and asylum seekers initially flee to nearby countries. There are then three possible outcomes: they return to their origin, they remain in the nearby country permanently, or they move to a third country which is often high income and not nearby. Refugees may move to a third country on their own, or they may be resettled in a third country by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) or as a result of an agreement between countries.




Afghanistan: 2,673,329

Afghanistan: 2,107,519

Syria: 5,500,586

Liberia: 777,805

Iraq: 1,450,905

Afghanistan: 2,488,701

Bosnia & Herzegovina: 672,631

Sudan: 686,311

South Sudan: 1,436,651

Iraq: 672,027

Somalia: 464,038

Somalia: 1,102,326

Somalia: 572,191

Democratic Republic of the Congo: 401,914

Democratic Republic of the Congo: 537,265

Sources: UNHCR (1997). Statistical Overview 1996. UNHCR (2008). UNHCR Statistical Yearbook 2006. statistical-yearbook-2006.html. UNHCR (2018). UNHCR Statistical Yearbook 2016. https://www.unhcr. org/en-us/statistics/country/5a8eeo387/unhcr-statistical-yearbook-20i6-16th-edition.html. [October 4, 2019].

The number and origin of refugees can change very quickly when a crisis unfolds. Table 2.5 lists the top five origin countries of refugees, as reported by the UNHCR, for several years.3 Some countries have been in the top five for many decades, like Afghanistan. The conflict there during the 1980s resulted in large numbers of refugees who have never returned. Some other countries were on the list for only a short time, like Bosnia and Herzegovina. The number of refugees from a country typically falls because the situation inside that country stabilizes and refugees can return. The UNHCR works to resettle refugees in third countries when it appears that they will never be able to return to their origin and integrating them into the current host country seems infeasible. Most industrialized countries voluntarily accept a certain number of refugees each year. In the United States, this number is determined by the President in consultation with Congress. President Barack Obama set a target of refugees in fiscal year 2016, for example, while President Donald Trump set a target of 18,000 refugees in fiscal year 2020.

Table 2.6 reports the top five countries of current residence for refugees and asylum seekers in 2018. (Table 2.5 is about origins, while Table 2.6 reports stocks by current residence.) Most refugees are in countries near the countries that have been the main origin of refugees in recent years. For example, Turkey is near Syria; Pakistan is next to Afghanistan; Uganda and Sudan are nextto South Sudan. The United States, Germany and Turkey have been the top recipients of new asylum seekers in recent years. The fact that the United States had double the number of asylum seekers that Germany did in 2018 is particularly notable.

During the late 1980s and early 1990s, Western European countries received an unprecedented number of asylum seekers, many of them from the former Yugoslavia (including Bosnia and Herzegovina, which is included in Table 2.5). Germany received more than 1,000 asylum applications a day in 1992 (Martin, 2013). More than 90 percent of applicants were ultimately found to not qualify for refugee status. In the wake of the flood of asylum seekers, most European countries made it more difficult for migrants to apply for asylum. They began requiring entry visas for migrants from countries that were major sources of unfounded asylum seekers; imposed sanctions


Asylum seekers



United States
















South Africa


Source: United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (2019) Global Trends Forced Displacement in 2018. Geneva, Switzerland: United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

on airlines and ships that transported migrants without visas; narrowed the grounds for awarding refugee status; and sped up the application process, among other changes. They also began requiring migrants to seek asylum in the first safe country they reach, the so-called Dublin rule. This means that most asylum seekers now must apply—and are supposed to remain—in Greece, Italy or Spain instead of wealthier Northern European countries with more generous public assistance programs.

The question of whether asylum seekers are legitimately seeking refuge or are economic migrants arose again in Europe in the mid-20ios in response to two major inflows of migrants: Syrians and other migrants from the Middle East arriving through Turkey, and Africans crossing the Mediterranean Sea. These inflows of migrants have been even more controversial than the inflows from the former Yugoslavia since many of the migrants differ in race, religion and education from the average European. The large inflows—which have topped one million in some years—have led to disagreements among European nations about whether to enforce the Dublin rule; whether to rescue boats of migrants at sea and bring them to European shores; and how much aid to provide to origin or third-party countries to either deter or shelter migrants, among other issues. The United States faced similar questions as inflows from Central America, including unprecedented numbers of unaccompanied minors and women with young children, surged during mid- and late-2Cnos. Whether those migrants should be viewed as unauthorized immigrants and quickly returned to their home country, whether they should be required to first apply for asylum in other countries they pass through on their way to the United States, and whether they should wait in Mexico or in detention centers in the United States while their claims are processed have been controversial issues.

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