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Forced Displacement

Human Rights and the Struggle for Social Justice


As of this writing, more than 65 million people around the world have been displaced, representing the highest number since the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), also known as the UN Refugee Agency, began its reporting more than fifty years ago. This number includes 21.3 million refugees, 40.8 million internally displaced persons, and 3.2 million asylum seekers. To comprehend the scale of this number, it is useful to understand that 1 person in 100 worldwide has been displaced from their home, and if these 65 million people were a nation unto themselves, they would make up the twenty-first largest in the world. Another way to understand the gravity of the current situation is to consider that 34,000 people per day — an average of 24 people every minute — are forcibly displaced as a result of conflict or persecution. Young people are particularly impacted: Some 94,400 unaccompanied or separated children, representing 78 countries, applied for asylum in 2015. Today, more than half (54 percent) of all refugees worldwide come from just three countries: the Syrian Arab Republic, Afghanistan, and Somalia. Worldwide, Turkey, Pakistan, Lebanon, the Islamic Republic of Iran, Ethiopia, and Jordan host the largest numbers of these refugees.

But what does it mean to be a refugee or displaced person? The term “refugee” was given a precise legal definition in 1951. It was defined by the newly organized (in 1950) United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) as someone who, “owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality, and is unable to or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country. This definition has been refined over time. (See Activity 2.) A refugee is not the same as an internally displaced person (IDP). Refugees cross an international border; IDPs have been forced to leave their home, but have not crossed a border and, therefore, remain in their own country.

The increasing numbers of refugees are the focus of intense political rhetoric and media attention. Their plight has renewed discussions about the following issues:

  • the meaning of nationhood, culture, and citizenship;
  • the definition of human rights;
  • the legal and fiscal responsibilities of nation states; and,
  • the ethics of national and regional efforts at control of refugees.

Meanwhile, internally displaced persons (IDPs), who do not fit the legal definition of refugee because they have not left their homeland, pose another set of challenges to international law and to the mandates of humanitarian organizations.

The scale and complexity of the contemporary refugee crisis has also raised new ethical and human rights questions such as: What are the rights of the deceased? Thousands perish on their journey for safe refuge, and their relatives and friends, as well as the international community, call for the need for a registry of the dead, and the care and rights of those orphaned by these tragedies.

The Causes and Evolution of Global Human Displacement 

In the pre-World War II era, a number of factors created refugees. In the seventeen century, Huguenots left France because religious beliefs led to persecution. Colonialism and wars in the late nineteenth century displaced large numbers of citizens. A number of events and social phenomena shifted the perception of displaced peoples in the early twentieth century, which marked the emergence of the global modern refugee. Between 1914 and 1922, World War I, the Russian Revolution, and the ethno-religious “unmixing” of Greece and Turkey displaced millions of people. In 1919, the Turkish government massacred one million Armenians, and the threat of death forced hundreds of thousands of surviving Armenians out of the country. In this pre-World War II era, different countries appealed to refugees, and some countries encouraged refugee resettlement. Jews who were seeking refuge from religious persecution went to South America and the United States.

While the World War I era conflicts uprooted some seven million people, it was the aftermath of World War II and the beginning of the Cold War that pushed 40 million people into statelessness. Europe became the focus of refugee history because inward-looking nations such as the United States made it more difficult for refugees and migrants to enter the country. World War II marked a turning point in the movement of peoples. On the one hand, the number of refugees increased. Wars and conflicts, failing governments, uprisings, and disasters forced millions of people around the globe to leave their homelands in levels that challenged host governments and humanitarian organizations, and fundamentally altered nation states. At the same time, their movement became more difficult as nations introduced more border control and restrictions for entry.

From the 1960s on, African countries dealt with the fallout of decolonization, genocide, and famine. The 1990s saw the end of the Soviet-Bloc-affected wars in the former Yugoslavia, Iraq, and Afghanistan, which led to another large wave of displacement. These events prompted some receiving countries to change their refugee policies. In the 1970s and 1980s, refugees from Vietnam and Kampuchea (Cambodia) went to Australia, a country that had not previously encouraged refugees. The arrival of Vietnamese refugees marked the end of the infamous White Australia Policy, or the Immigration Restriction Act, which was passed in 1901 and was designed to discourage non-Europeans from coming to the country.

Cold War refugees from Asia also impacted the West. Hundreds of thousands of so-called “boat people” — formerly people from the French colonies of Indochina who did not want to live under repressive Communist rule in the post-Vietnam War era — became a fixture in the national consciousness of the United States during the late 1970s and early 1980s as refugees were resettled there. Cubans also braved storms and the shark-infested waters of the Florida Straits in their efforts to reach the United States during the 1980s, as did Haitians in the 1990s. Thus, the present-day situation in the Mediterranean is not the first instance of widespread attention to refugees fleeing by boat.

IDPs faced similar challenges. In Columbia, for example, a 50-year civil war has produced more than five million IDPs. The government security forces and paramilitary units have been combating the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (or FARC, Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia) and the National Liberation Army (or ELN, Ejército de Liberación Nacional). The illegal drug trade has exacerbated the numbers of IDPs as people have left their homes because of the added threat of drug-related violence.

In 2016, negotiations began in Myanmar to end the long civil war, which started in 1948. Decades of fighting between ethnic minority groups and the government have resulted in large numbers of IDPs and mass human rights abuses. The Rohingya population (who are Muslims) continue to suffer disproportionately. People from Myanmar form the largest refugee population in the United States as of 2015.

As with World War II, 2015 was arguably a turning point in modern refugee history. Beginning around 2011, the world began to see unprecedented numbers of conflict-driven displacement. Conflicts and failed states in Africa and the Middle East led people to flee Libya, Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia, Sudan, and the Democratic Republic of Congo. It has become increasingly difficult to settle in neighboring countries, so most look to Europe as the only other possible destination. Passing through the Mediterranean, the Balkans, and other countries in Eastern Europe because these countries offer little in terms of economic stability, millions of people have embarked on perilous journeys to seek new lives in countries such as Germany, Sweden, Denmark, and the UK. Because of the substantial numbers they have accepted into the country, Germany has played a central role: In 2015 alone, 1.1 million refugees crossed the German border. Berlin received nearly 10,000 refugees in November 2015.

Throughout 2015, the world was riveted by the images of ill-equipped and overcrowded boatloads of Syrian families and individuals struggling to survive a perilous passage through the Aegean Sea. Dogan News Agency’s Nilufer Demir’s photograph of the body of a three-year-old Syrian boy named Aylan Kurdi shocked the world. Kurdi drowned after the overcrowded boat carrying him and his family across the Mediterranean was overcome by waves, and his body was found washed up near the Turkish town of Bodrum. Yet Kurdi represents just one life out of millions impacted by what many observers now recognize as the greatest humanitarian crisis the world has ever known.

Meanwhile, changing climate conditions and environmental factors are creating new kinds of displacement that do not fit neatly into definitions of persecution, because there is no legal definition of a “climate refugee” or an “environmental refugee.” Floods and storm events are the overwhelming cause of internal displacement. In Myanmar, nearly half a million people have had to flee their homes because of monsoon flooding. Other events, such as the earthquake in Nepal, have also caused displacement.

In Oman and Mongolia, climate change is impacting pasture quality and water resources and disrupting the rural landscape. Therefore, those who are economically dependent on the land see rural poverty and out-migration. These “environmental migrants” are often forced to leave pastoralism all together because fencing, policies, and fixed borders restrict their capacity to move and continue their work in either their home country or a neighboring nation state. The government often reinforces these pressures with policies of forced settlement, thus cutting them off from their livelihoods. The issue is further compounded by large-scale mining and oil extraction in these regions, which further degrades the local ecosystem.

Unlike refugees of the past, refugees today use smartphone apps such as WhatsApp, Viber, Messenger, and Google Maps to help them navigate sea crossings and hostile borders and to maintain contact with loved ones. This also helps them keep their family and friends informed of their whereabouts. Before arriving at a destination, through texting and messaging, refugees can determine their next steps. A number of refugees have used their experience and skills to create their own social media tools to help others. A Syrian refugee living in Turkey created an app called Gherbetna (which translates to “loneliness, otherness, or exile” in Arabic) that aids users by answering questions and offering advice, such as how to apply for a work permit in Turkey. Another online network helps Syrian refugees find job opportunities in the country in which they have relocated.

International Response to Global Human Displacement 

The displacement and movement of people in the first half of the twentieth century led to the creation of the world’s first legal and institutional framework designed to manage stateless migrants. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and the Convention relating to the Status of Refugees were both created in 1951. Charged with the responsibility of providing international protection for refugees, the core principle of the work of the UNHCR is non-refoulement, or the belief that a refugee cannot be returned to a country where they face serious threats to their life or freedom. The UNHCR, also known as the UN Refugee Agency, is a United Nations organization that is mandated to protect and support refugees at the request of a government or the UN itself. It assists in their voluntary repatriation, local integration, or resettlement into another country.

The United States has its own international advocacy and domestic refugee resettlement organization, called the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants. According to the organization’s mission statement, USCRI was established “To protect the rights and address the needs of persons in forced or voluntary migration worldwide and support their transition to a dignified life.”

Humanitarian organizations such as Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) complement the work of the UNHCR. MSF works around the world to provide refugees and IDPs with medical care and access to safe drinking water, psychological care, vaccinations, and life-saving nutrition.

Individuals also make vital contributions. Private citizens have used their own boats to rescue refugees traveling by water. Along the major refugee traveling routes through Europe to Germany, many citizens have distributed food and water. Independent volunteers raise their own funds to go and work in refugee camps. Business leaders such as Hamdi Ulukaya, the CEO of the U.S.-based Chobani, the world’s largest yogurt factory, employ large numbers of refugees. Other businesses offer internships, scholarships, and training courses. With the UNHCR, the Vodafone Foundation developed a digital “school in a box” to bring tablet-based teaching to young refugees living in camps.

On the national and local level, refugees and IDPs pose specific challenges for politicians and civic leaders around policy and resources. The movement of IDPs can be spontaneous depending on unforeseen outbreaks of violence or disasters, and governments can be unprepared to deal with an influx of residents. This was seen during Hurricane Katrina in 2005. The financial burden of addressing the needs of refugees can be felt disproportionately in specific urban areas. For this reason, some officials (often responding to the attitudes of their constituents) withhold whatever resources they may have because they seek to discourage further influxes.

Refugees need to be housed, trained, and educated. They may require intensive medical and psychiatric care. These are examples of practical, day-to-day needs, but there are complex social and cultural needs as well. Because refugee populations tend to be poor and face language barriers in their new setting, the design and implementation of programs is paramount. Ineffective programming and poor decisions can exacerbate problems for vulnerable communities and may have lasting impacts.

Each country has its own system, but in the United States, the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency (ICE), along with other intergovernmental and nongovernmental organizations, work on asylum claims. Agencies known as resettlement support centers interview applicants, help prepare paperwork, and arrange medical examinations and background security checks. The U.S. president determines the number of refugees accepted each year in consultation with Congress. Congress then appropriates funds and contracts with nine agencies to help resettle them. Refugees are given federal money to learn English and pay for their living costs for a short time. Within a couple of months, they are expected to be self-supporting.

In the United States, a nationwide network of cities participate in programming specifically designed to welcome and aid refugees. The United States Committee for Refugees and Immigrants supports the resettlement, and is often called a sponsor. This agency coordinates services for the uprooted — helping them with practical services, establishing community connections, and rebuilding their new lives. In the United States, individuals cannot act as sponsors, but Canada has had a longstanding policy of letting individuals sponsor refugees without any family connection. Other countries, including New Zealand, Argentina, and Switzerland, are working to institute similar programs that allow individuals to sponsor refugees, in part because of the large demand.

According to the UN and various other regional protocols, displaced people have rights. The 1951 Convention established the basic rights of refugees, which are:

  • Non-refoulement.
  • Freedom of movement, which means that refugees have the right to choose their place of residence within the territory and to move freely within that area.
  • Liberty and security of the person, which means they should not be forcefully detained.
  • Family life, which recognizes the family as the fundamental group unit of society that is entitled to protection. For example, if an individual is granted asylum, dependent relatives are granted the same.
  • Education, employment, and access to justice.

Despite these rights being protected under the 1951 Convention and other human rights treaties, refugees in various countries do not enjoy the full or equal legal protection of fundamental privileges. Many countries detain refugees in detention centers.

Created in 2004, the UN’s Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement state that IDPs retain the economic, social, cultural, civil, and political rights as all people in their own country of citizenship or residence. They have the rights to basic humanitarian assistance (food, medicine, and shelter), to be protected from physical violence, to education, to freedom of movement and residence, to participate in political affairs, and to participate in economic activities. Further, they have the right to assistance from competent authorities in voluntary, dignified and safe return, and resettlement and local integration (including help in recovering lost property and possessions). It is the primary duty and responsibility of national authorities to provide protection and humanitarian assistance to IDPs within their jurisdiction. International humanitarian aid organizations play a significant role in assisting IDPs as well.

The Risks and Challenges of the Displaced 

Individuals and families face a multitude of challenges when seeking a better life: changing weather conditions as many travel hastily by foot or by boat, or limited time or access to necessities like shelter, food, or water. In countries such as Croatia, they risk encountering undetonated mines leftover from the decades of war in that region. If travel is by water, it typically takes place in overcrowded and ill-equipped or unseaworthy vessels. On their search for transportation or goods, they must negotiate with state and regional officials, immigration and border control, representatives of international and humanitarian organizations, and private sector individuals. They may also encounter criminal networks. Their journey can be interrupted, redirected, or thwarted at any moment. For instance, in Bulgaria, the government quickly erected a fence along their border with the goal of stopping people arriving through Turkey.

As displaced people, refugees and IDPs must decide whether they will or can return to their homelands, whether to remain in their own country, or how to resettle in a new country. By returning, they risk the possibility of going through all of the risks and challenges again. Living in a foreign city with little services or education contributes toward a life of poverty. Meanwhile, few can survive the bureaucratic process that would allow them to become citizens of a foreign country.

With these factors in mind, in various locations and living conditions around the world, refugees and IDPs work to survive. They do so while negotiating their place of permanent residence with their host government and with the constant worry about family and relatives who were not able to come with them. Depending on one’s gender, sexual orientation, or age, there are additional hurdles and risks. Women and children are vulnerable to violence and human trafficking. Young children traveling alone face legal uncertainty if caught by authorities who may not know how to, or are unequipped to, respond appropriately. Children must cope with various traumas. A recent study by a Turkish university found that three out of four Syrian youngsters had lost a loved one in the fighting. [1]

The UNHCR reports that LGBTI refugees face a particularly heightened risk of arrest, harassment, and violent abuse — including murder. Some non-governmental organizations such as the ABAAD-Resource Centre for Gender Equality in Lebanon have begun to provide individual and group support to LGBTI refugees.

Dadaab, Al Zaatari, Dollo Ado, Mbera, Nakivale, Bokolmanyo. Few would recognize these names, but these are the names of refugee camps that house tens to hundreds of thousands of people. These camps are essentially small cities with their own streets, markets, schools, and hospitals. With a little more than 40,000 inhabitants, the population of Bokolmanyo in Ethiopia is the size of Burlington, Vermont. Dadaab, in Kenya, is the largest refugee camp in the world. Created in 1992, it today has more than 320,000 residents. It is so large that it essentially functions and resembles a city of tents, with markets, religious spaces, a disability center, police stations, graveyards, and a bus station. 

While refugees seek asylum and settlement in a new country because they cannot return home, IDPs may eventually return. Land and property are incentives for IDPs to return home. This is rare, however: The UNHCR estimates that only 3.2 percent of all IDPs return home. When displaced people return to their homeland, there are many issues that need to be considered. The first is safety. Armed groups that could prevent or deter displaced people from returning must be disarmed and demobilized. Unexploded landmines and other explosives on the landscape also pose a threat. Myanmar, for example, is one of the most landmine-infested countries in the world.

Repercussions of the Loss of Coherent Community and Culture 

Resettled refugees must remake their lives in new settings far different from their homelands. Refugees face the trauma of forced separation from family, friends, and homeland; difficulty covering basic needs; anxiety about their lack of control over their future; financial uncertainty; social marginalization; feelings of loss of dignity due to dependence on welfare and social agencies; and the stigma and negative perceptions of refugees in host countries, among other issues. Refugees’ inability to find employment, compounded by language barriers, can often lead to depression. This is especially the case for male refugees coming from patriarchal societies where familial expectations fall heavily upon them.

According to the Cultural Orientation Resource Center, in general terms, the Syrian society is patriarchal, and everyone is under the protection and authority of the oldest man. Women are believed to be in need of protection, particularly from the attention of unrelated men. The fear of sexual violence from other refugees or host country nationals may cause refugee women and girls to stay home, only venturing outside — such as to go to classes or other appointments — when accompanied by other family members.

Violence is a major and real problem for female refugees. Refugee women are extremely vulnerable to sexual assault and exploitation, including rape. Displaced women may also be coming from countries where they had little or no access to education or job training, and they will require special programming to help them overcome these barriers. Refugee youth may lack stable housing, or face cultural, linguistic, and educational barriers, which means they are often not in school or employed.

Religious services have been shown to help refugees cope and provide a sense of community. According to the UNHCR, “Praying was the first resource to deal with emotional distress by providing them with peace. Religious practices and structures helped to reconstruct a social network by meeting others and providing participants with information to access work or to obtain practical support.”

Non-profits such as Refugee Transitions develop programs to help refugees in their new countries. For instance, refugees created a narrative cookbook through which they told their stories.

In addition to faith-based organizations and resettlement programs, the Internet can also play a vital role in helping refugees to maintain a sense of community connection. Being able to check the news from home and communicate with other refugees can have a tremendous impact on well-being. In recent years, aid organizations have recognized the contribution online communities can have. For example, REFUNITE offers online profiles similar to Facebook, where refugees can search for lost family members.

In helping adults to become comfortable in the new culture, young people make a real contribution. Children are immediately immersed in the new culture through the school system and can help older family members navigate in the new setting. They work as “interpreters” of the cultural habits and norms in the new country. They often are the ones to introduce other family members to the Internet and social networks.


[1] www.fhi.no/globalassets/migrering/dokumenter/pdf/bahcesehir-study-report3.pdf

Grade Level

High School

Classroom Connections

Social Studies
U.S. History
World History

Curriculum Snapshot

  • Forced displacement and refugees
  • Social justice and the rights and needs of refugees
  • The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees

Video Connection



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