The world's 5 biggest refugee crises

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  • Crises in Syria, Afghanistan and South Sudan have displaced more than 10 million people around the world—more than half of the refugee population worldwide. Meanwhile, instability in Venezuela and violence Myanmar have forced millions more to leave their homes behind. PHOTO: 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. Today more than 65 million people around the world are displaced from their homes.

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

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

About a third of the world’s displaced population — some 22.5 million people — have been forced to flee their own countries entirely, leaving familiar lands behind. More than half of all refugees worldwide come from just three countries: Syria, Afghanistan and South Sudan.

With your support, Mercy Corps is responding to this crisis with emergency assistance to help refugees meet their urgent needs around the world. 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: 5.6 million refugees

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. PHOTO: Sean Sheridan for Mercy Corps

The Syria crisis has accelerated more dramatically than any crisis on earth, and Syrians continue to be the largest forcibly displaced population in the world. 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 seven years on, more than half of the pre-war population has been internally displaced or forced to seek safety in neighboring countries. That’s more than 11 million people on the run, including some 5.6 million people who have escaped across the borders.

Mercy Corps is reaching hundreds of thousands of people throughout Syria 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: 2.5 million refugees

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. PHOTO: Sara Hylton for Mercy Corps

Years of unemployment, insecurity and political instability have led to a massive migration from Afghanistan. Over one million people are estimated to be living in new and prolonged displacement, while nearly 2.5 million people have been forced to leave the country to Iran, Pakistan or Europe.

The United Nations estimates that an average 1,100 people a day — mostly women and children — were forcibly displaced by violence in 2017. Today, over half of people displaced by conflict in Afghanistan have been displaced at least twice, compared to just 7 percent five years ago.

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. South Sudan: 2.1 million refugees

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

The situation in South Sudan is dire, and the largest refugee crisis in Africa. More than 4 million people have been uprooted from their homes since the start of a brutal civil war in 2013, including more than 2 million people who have been forced to cross into neighboring countries, the majority of them women and children.

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.”

4. Venezuela: 1.5 million refugees

One of the world’s most overlooked crises is happening in South America. Once the richest country in the region, Venezuela is now experiencing economic, social and institutional collapse. Almost 90 percent of the country’s population has dropped below the poverty line and more than half of families are struggling to meet basic food needs. Jobs have disappeared, violence is on the rise and reliable access to food, healthcare and medicine has deteriorated.

The situation has become the worst humanitarian crisis in the Western Hemisphere, and more than 1.5 million people have become displaced in the region over the last several years. The number of Venezuelan families arriving in neighboring countries has steadily increased in recent months as conditions continue to worsen. More than 600,000 people are newly displaced in neighboring Colombia, with an estimated 3,000 people crossing the border each day in search of basic essentials and new opportunity.

Mercy Corps has worked in Colombia since 2005, supporting conflict-affected populations with the resources they need to rebuild their lives, helping displaced people meet urgent needs, and protecting youth from violence. We are currently preparing an emergency response to help Venezuelans seeking refuge in the country, which will complement the efforts of the Colombian government and other organizations responding to the crisis.

5. Myanmar: 905,000 refugees

Since violence broke out in Myanmar’s northern Rakhine State in August 2017, more than 693,000 Rohingya have fled to Cox’s Bazar in southeast Bangladesh. Before the crisis began, Bangladesh was already grappling with its own humanitarian challenges, and hosting some 212,000 Rohingya who had escaped Myanmar during earlier periods of violence and persecution.

The speed and scale of the influx over the course of a three-month period last fall has placed tremendous strain on host communities and Bangladesh as a whole, making it one of the world’s largest and worst refugee crises.

Today, there are over 905,000 Rohingya seeking refuge in Bangladesh and at least 1.3 million people — Rohingya refugees and Bangladeshi host communities — who rely on humanitarian assistance to meet their basic needs. More than half of them are children. These populations live in desperately overcrowded camps and communities, highly vulnerable to oncoming monsoon and cyclone seasons.

Learn more about the Rohingya crisis in Bangladesh ▸

In the midst of one of the world’s most pressing refugee crises, Mercy Corps sees an opportunity to address the urgent needs of refugees and, at the same time, help the host communities build resilience and transform their communities.

In response to the start of the monsoon season, Mercy Corps is working with partners to help Rohingya people from Myanmar and Bangladeshis in host communities in Cox’s Bazar access clean water and reinforce their shelters against mudslides and flooding.

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.
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  • 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.