Some of these reasons may surprise you.
If you’re unfamiliar with foreign politics, as many people are, it may be unfathomable that people “willingly” leave their homes and make dangerous treks to live in other countries. Not only that, but they do it by the millions, moving in separate hordes day by day because there is safety in numbers but too many people might draw too much attention.
The fact is that, yes, these people choose to leave the only home they have ever known but they did not choose the elements and politics and war that forced them to do so. Though refugees are garnering tons of attention lately because there are so many fleeing from just a few countries, there have always been people seeking refuge in other nations throughout human history.
However, there have never been as many refugees as there are today, according to the UN Refugee Agency. Their figures show that there are about 65.6 million forcibly-displaced people worldwide and 22.5 million of them are considered refugees. Over half of the refugees are from Syria, South Sudan, and Afghanistan, and more than half are under the age of 18.
The first true definition of a refugee was made in 1951 with the Refugee Convention, which sought to address the problem of displaced people resulting from the second World War. The first definition is now considered narrow, and outlined a refugee as a person who has a “well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion” and who, on account of that fear “is unwilling to return to [their country of origin].” Below are the top 5 reasons that people are forced to become refugees.
1. Religious/National/Social/Racial/Political Persecution
This is the most common reason people become refugees and they are all lumped together because the process looks similar in all cases. Persecution involves the systematic pursuit of people for any of these reasons, whether its their religious affiliation, their race, or their political beliefs, and the threatening of their well-being if they continue to live where they are.
For the United States, religious refugees are surprisingly split. According to Pew, about 46% of refugees in 2016 seeking help in the U.S. were Muslim and 44% of them were Christian. The remaining 10% were mostly Hindus, Buddhists, and Jewish people.
Christians and Muslims are being persecuted all around the world, whether its Muslims in Myanmar or Christians in the Central African Republic, and their need to flee in order to save their own life is necessary and dangerous.
This is perhaps the most well-known reason for why people leave their countries, as it is better understood by people who have never been persecuted for part of their identity, but fleeing from violence is essentially universally understood as acceptable and necessary. This is almost like a broader category for which persecution can often fit into, as wars are typically the product of intolerance and greed, and people who don’t want to be caught in the crossfire are forced to leave.
The largest group of refugees in the world today are made up of those fleeing the civil war in Syria, which first officially began in 2011 and has so far killed hundreds of thousands of Syrians and caused 6.3 million to be displaced within the country itself. An additional 5 million people have left the country entirely, making them refugees.
Prior to the Syrian conflict, the biggest group of refugees were fleeing the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan in the 80s all the way to the 2000s. Afghanistan actually held the title for largest number of refugees of any country in the world for over two decades, before the Syrian Civil War started, although this is a title no country should be proud to hold.
3. Gender/Sexual Orientation
This reason stands on its own because it is so fresh in its notoriety for being a reason that people are persecuted on a large scale and not just on an individual basis by a few mean people. The UNHCR didn’t even add gender and sexual orientation as a reason that people fled and became refugees until 2012, when it addressed the issue by updating their guidelines:
“It is widely documented that LGBTI individuals are the targets of killings, sexual and gender-based violence, physical attacks, torture, arbitrary detention, accusations of immoral or deviant behavior, denial of the rights to assembly, expression and information, and discrimination in employment, health and education in all regions around the world,” the organization wrote.
The issue has recently gained some spotlight because France accepted its first gay Chechen refugee this past May after people became aware of the persecution of homosexual people in Chechnya. Allegedly gay men are being held and tortured in concentration camps while the government tells citizens that gay people “don’t exist.” France intends to accept more Chechen refugees, as rumors persist that more than three men have died as a result of the beatings and electrocution the men are subject to in the torture camps.
While this technically is not a human-driven cause because people cannot necessarily change the environment, climate change has played a huge role in the changing landscapes across the world and the people that live off the land. About 20 million people in North Africa and Middle Eastern nations are facing extreme drought and unable to provide food or water for themselves, causing them to move elsewhere in search of sustenance.
Those living in Africa are roaming their continent in search of stable food sources in other nations and they make up about 17 million of the displaced people in the world right now. Only a handful of them have made it to European shores, but the vast majority are in refugee camps within Africa. Oftentimes, those fleeing hunger are also fleeing something else, like extremist groups attacking their religion.
5. Climate Change
The droughts and hunger are linked to climate change, but there are other environmental changes that occur around people’s homes that causes them to leave as well. Those living on the coasts of any nation are considered at risk, especially those whose livelihoods once depended on the ocean. With climate change, the tides are swallowing up coastal areas and it’s estimated that in the next 83 years, about 13 million coastal dwellers will be displaced because of rising sea levels.
On the record, climate change is not an adequate reason to seek asylum in another country, but that doesn’t mean that environmental changes haven’t seriously impacted people and forced them to leave their homes. As those living in areas where the water has taken their homes or the average temperature has risen enough to be unlivable, this reality is not distant, as many climate deniers will have people believe.