The world's 5 biggest refugee crises

Afghanistan, Nigeria, Somalia, South Sudan, Syria, June 5, 2017

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  • Crises in Syria, Afghanistan, Lake Chad, South Sudan and Somalia (seen here) have displaced as many as 12 million people—more than the populations of 43 U.S. states. Mercy Corps is responding with emergency assistance to help them meet their urgent needs. Peter Caton for Mercy Corps

The refugee crisis is a human crisis: Behind the statistics are people filled with unique life experiences and dreams for the future. They are mothers longing to return home, fathers yearning to work again, children searching for a childhood.

We are witnessing a massive shift of humanity unlike any seen before. More than 65 million people around the world—roughly the population of France—are displaced from their homes. As many as 12 million of them are from just five places: Syria, Afghanistan, the Lake Chad basin, South Sudan, and Somalia.

What does it look like for that many people to be displaced?

It would be like the entire population of Portugal going homeless. Or everyone in Sweden fleeing and leaving an empty nation behind them. It would be like the state of Georgia slowly draining of every doctor, teacher, engineer and entrepreneur—every person who lived there, plus a million more—until there was only barren land left behind.

With your support, Mercy Corps is responding to this crisis with emergency assistance to help refugees meet their urgent needs around the world. Today our refugee response reaches people in more than 20 countries with support like cash, food, water, shelter, youth centers and life skills training.

All refugees have suffered unimaginable loss, whether they are displaced in their own country or seeking safety overseas. Yet they are filled with potential and the strength to triumph over adversity. Their story is our story, because we are all human—and together, we can build a better world.

Read on to learn more about where this crisis is hitting the hardest, and how you can help.

1. Syria: 4.9 million displaced

Joury, 12, fled Daraa, Syria with her family four years ago. She now lives in Za’atari refugee camp in Jordan, where she dreams of being a painter. Sean Sheridan for Mercy Corps

The Syria crisis has accelerated more dramatically than any crisis on earth. After war erupted in March 2011, it took two years for 1 million people to be displaced. Another million were displaced within six months. Now six years on, half the country’s entire population is gone, scattered across the world.

Mercy Corps is one of the largest providers of humanitarian assistance throughout Syria, reaching hundreds of thousands of people per month with urgently needed food, water, blankets and other essential supplies.

Get the quick facts about the Syria crisis ▸

We’re also working to reach the millions of Syrian refugees now living in other countries. In a colourful classroom in Jordan’s Za’atari refugee camp, 12-year-old Joury paints a picture of a garden. It’s a place she remembers from Syria, with tall trees that linger in her memory from visits there with her grandmother.

Joury fled Syria with her family four years ago. There is no way to know if she will be able to go home again. At a Mercy Corps youth centre in Za’atari, art helps young refugees like her cope with their stress and enjoy being kids again.

“In Syria I wanted to be an artist, but I didn’t know how to draw,” she says. “I learned how to draw at Mercy Corps [youth centre programme].”

“When I am thinking of anything, I just like to draw it. I feel comfortable when I draw.”

2. Afghanistan: 2.6 million displaced

Shakila, centre, fled Afghanistan with her kids, Sonia and Arash. Cash from Mercy Corps is helping them meet their urgent needs while living in Greece. Sara Hylton for Mercy Corps

Years of unemployment, insecurity and political instability have led to a massive migration from Afghanistan. The United Nations estimates that 1,000 Afghans flee their homes every day. Many go to Iran and Pakistan, but huge numbers are crossing into Europe: 20 percent of people who arrived by boat seeking asylum in Europe in 2015 were from Afghanistan.

Mercy Corps is working to build a stronger future within Afghanistan by training farmers to grow better crops, improving economic opportunities for youth, teaching new mothers healthy nutrition practices, and helping women and girls find better access to financial services and job opportunities.

We’re also helping Afghan refugees while they live away from home. Shakila, 31, fled Afghanistan with her husband and three children, seeking a better life. Now they wait in Greece for a future they’re not sure will ever arrive.

Addressing anger, not just income, is key to fighting instability in Afghanistan ▸

Mercy Corps is providing Shakila with a cash card to buy essentials for her family, while her daughter, Sonia, is in an art workshop at a Mercy Corps youth centre.

“I worry about my children,” Shakila says. “They need an education but here they just pass the days without anything. My daughter is depressed. She always stays inside the tent.”

“I'm a little older; I don't need anything. I just need my kids to go to school and have an education and change their future for good things to come.”

3. Lake Chad: 2.6 million displaced

Violence has displaced more than 2 million people in Africa’s Lake Chad Basin. Mercy Corps is providing food, water and cash assistance to help people meet their urgent needs. Tom Saater for Mercy Corps

One of the world’s most overlooked crises is happening within west Africa’s Lake Chad basin: More than 2 million people have been forced to flee their homes in Cameroon, Chad, Niger and Nigeria. At least 55,000 people are already experiencing famine-like conditions in Borno State, Nigeria alone, and more than 6 million people face crisis or emergency levels of food insecurity.

What you need to know about the Lake Chad crisis ▸

“As we’ve had better access to these areas, the level and urgency of the need we see is horrifying and demands immediate action,” says Iveta Ouvry, Mercy Corps’ country director in Nigeria. “We are working as quickly as possible to expand our ongoing delivery of food vouchers; financial assistance; and water, sanitation, and hygiene support.”

“This is not a crisis that will be solved with one silver-bullet solution. International donors and governments in the region need to respond quickly with short- and long-term solutions, such as directing more resources to address immediate needs and developing policies to tackle the underlying causes of the crisis."

4. South Sudan: 1.5 million displaced

Angelina has fled violence, flooding and drought looking for a safe place for her family. “I am tired of running from enemies,” she says. Jennifer Huxta for Mercy Corps

The situation in South Sudan is dire: Approximately 100,000 people are on the brink of starvation and over 5 million people are in urgent need of humanitarian relief after the world's first famine in six years.

Ongoing warfare, flooding and drought continue to worsen what is already a dangerous humanitarian crisis. There are massive needs for clean water, health care, sanitation, food, shelter, and protection across the country, and millions of people now require urgent support to survive.

Get the quick facts about the crisis in South Sudan ▸

Angelina feels that struggle deeply. She fled conflict in her village twice looking for a safe place for her family. The last time she fled, her home was burned behind them.

For five days she walked through deep water, floating her children on a plastic tarp until they found refuge on Nyoat Island, where they rely on food assistance and water lilies to survive. Her children leave by canoe every morning at 4 a.m. to go to a local school Mercy Corps supports.

“I set up here because I am tired of running from enemies,” she says. “I decided to come here for two reasons: for fear—I feel safe here—and because I can get water lilies for my kids.”

“I have hope [to find work] but I don’t know what kind of work. If there is an opportunity given and I can provide for my kids, then I will be happy. Even if I have some small seeds, then I can plant a vegetable garden and sell them and get some money.”

5. Somalia: 1 million displaced

Hadija is one of 155,000 Somalis who have been displaced in the city of Baidoa because of drought and instability. Mercy Corps is distributing water and food in the camp where she lives. Peter Caton for Mercy Corps

Somalia is facing one of the world’s worst emergencies and is at risk of slipping into famine. More than half the country is in need of assistance: The number of people in need has grown from 5 million in September 2015 to over 6.2 million this year.

Drought and ongoing conflict have forced millions of people to flee their villages for life in destitute refugee camps. If drought conditions worsen, hundreds of thousands of children will be at risk of starvation.

Mercy Corps has been working in Somalia since 2005, improving access to food and water, rehabilitating waterways, supporting local markets and providing education and civic opportunities for youth. We are also providing livelihood opportunities, such as cash for work, to increase farm production and enhance the ability of communities to handle shocks like drought.

Famine and food security: What's at stake ▸

That support—and a long-term peaceful solution—is critical for people like 22-year-old Hadija. Two seasons of failed rains forced her to leave her village with her two children. Now she waits in a refugee camp, one of 155,000 people in her region whose life has been put on hold.

“In the village we lived from our animals, but they died from the drought,” she says. “The hunger brought us here. Unless things change, we have no hope of going back. We are depending on what relatives and friends give us.

“Tonight we have nothing to eat for my children and myself. We have no hope back at home, we just hope for people who wish us well to take care of us now.”

How you can help


Cash distributions, like this one in South Sudan, give people the freedom to meet their urgent needs however they choose. Jennifer Huxta for Mercy Corps

In more than 40 countries, Mercy Corps partners to put bold solutions into action—helping people triumph over adversity and build stronger communities from within. With your support, we are helping millions of people meet their urgent needs and build a stronger tomorrow.

You play an important role in ensuring that refugees have the support they need. When we work together, we can help even more people feel safe from conflict, stay healthy and forge ahead to a better, stronger future.

  • Donate today. Every single contribution helps us provide lifesaving assistance to refugees in crisis around the world.
  • Tell your friends. Share this story or go to our Facebook page or Twitter page to post the image and spread the word about the millions who need us.
  • Start a campaign. You can turn knowledge into action by setting up a personal fundraising page and asking your friends and family to contribute to our efforts to help refugees fleeing conflict.