Photograph by Muahmmad Muheisen, National Geographic
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Shershah, 15, from Afghanistan, peers out from below a bright blue blanket in an abandoned train car in the central railway station of Belgrade, Serbia where he has found some semblance of shelter and rest. Recent years have seen a jump in the number of unaccompanied children fleeing to Europe in an attempt to escape hardship and conflict.

Photograph by Muahmmad Muheisen, National Geographic

Millions spend decades as refugees

When a temporary crisis becomes a life in exile

Migrants from Africa and Middle East braving the deadly waters of the Mediterranean Sea to reach Europe have made for heartbreaking headlines in recent years. But a different element of the global refugee crisis has been growing for decades, far from the media spotlight.

More than 13 million people are trapped in the limbo defined by the United Nations as “Protracted Refugee Situations”— where 25,000 or more refugees have lived for five or more years in an asylum country. They can be found in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia, and South America, in host countries where a refugee’s temporary stay has turned into a prolonged state of crisis.

According to the United Nations’ Refugee Agency, some 68.5 million people are displaced worldwide, including 25.4 million people who have left their home countries as refugees. Nearly nine of out ten of them now live in developing countries where education, health, and employment resources are already under pressure.

Over two million Afghan refugees are now divided between Iran and Pakistan, for example, a cumulative sum first stemming from the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979.

Egypt has the longest protracted refugee situation of all, hosting refugees from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict for decades. For those refugees, and for so many others, their journey has no clear end in sight.

No End in Sight

Some 13.4 million people worldwide are living in protracted refugee situations, where more than 25,000 refugees from the same nationality have spent more than five consecutive years in another asylum country. Some three million refugees have lived in limbo for nearly four decades.

Protracted refugee situations*

Number of refugees in asylum country in that year

Africa

Middle East

25,000 – 99,999

100,000 – 599,999

Other Asia

500,000 – 1,000,000

S. America

more than 1,000,000

1960

‘70

‘80

‘90

2000

‘10

‘17

Asylum country

2017 total

Origin

country

Iran 951,142

Afghanistan

Pakistan 1,392,610

Burundi

Tanzania 251,227

Cameroon 248,843

Central African Republic

Chad 76,653

DR of the Congo 181,917

China

India 108,008

Ecuador 46,616

Colombia

Venezuela 122,677

Burundi 61,867

DR Congo

Rwanda 82,750

Uganda 226,192

Tanzania 56,906

Ethiopia 164,605

Eritrea

Sudan 108,243

Iran 28,268

Iraq

Jordan 34,037

Mauritania 49,829

Mali

Niger 56,838

Bangladesh 932,204

Myanmar

Malaysia 98,041

Thailand 99,982

Palestine

Egypt 70,018

Rwanda

DR Congo 220,377

Ethiopia 253,779

Somalia

Kenya 281,692

Yemen 255,894

South Sudan

Ethiopia 421,373

Sri Lanka

India 61,842

Chad 324,327

Sudan

Ethiopia 43,892

South Sudan 261,983

Egypt 126,688

Iraq 247,057

Syria

Jordan 653,031

Lebanon 992,127

Turkey 3,424,237

Vietnam

China 321,502

Western

Sahara

Algeria 90,000

Mauritania 26,001

Asylum country

2017 total

Origin

country

1960

‘70

‘80

‘90

2000

‘10

‘17

*DEFINITION DOES NOT CAPTURE SMALLER PROLONGED REFUGEE SITUATIONS. DATA DOES NOT INCLUDE THE 5.4 MILLION PALESTINE REFUGEES UNDER UNRWA.

TAYLOR MAGGIACOMO AND RYAN WILLIAMS, NG STAFF. DATA SOURCE: UNITED NATIONS HIGH COMMISSIONER

FOR REFUGEES

No End in Sight

Some 13.4 million people worldwide are living in protracted refugee situations, where more than 25,000 refugees from the same nationality have spent more than five consecutive years in another asylum country. Some three million refugees have lived in limbo for nearly four decades.

Protracted refugee situations*

25,000 – 99,999

Other Asia

Africa

Middle East

South America

Number of

refugees in asylum country in that year

100,000 – 599,999

500,00 – 1,000,000

more than 1,000,000

1960

‘65

‘70

‘75

‘80

‘85

‘90

‘95

2000

‘05

‘10

2015

Origin

country

Asylum country

2017 total

Iran 951,142

1979: Soviet invasion of Afghanistan

Afghanistan

Pakistan 1,392,610

Tanzania 251,227

Burundi

Cameroon 248,843

Central African Republic

Chad 76,653

DR Congo 181,917

India 108,008

China

Ecuador 46,616

2002: Violence escalates after peace talks fail during the decades-long civil war in Colombia.

Colombia

Venezuela 122,677

Burundi 61,867

Early 1960s: The Congo crisis flares up as a Cold War proxy conflict between the Soviet Union and the U.S.

Rwanda 82,750

Democratic Republic of the Congo

Uganda 226,192

Tanzania 56,906

Ethiopia 164,605

Eritrea

Sudan 108,243

Iran 28,268

1979: The rise of Saddam Hussein leads to an exodus of refugees.

Iraq

Jordan 34,037

Mauritania 49,829

Mali

Niger 56,838

Bangladesh 932,204

Internal conflicts push ethnic minorities like the Karen and Rohingya to flee for safe haven.

Malaysia 98,041

Myanmar

Thailand 99,982

1948: War sparked the ongoing Palestinian refugee crisis.

Egypt 70,018

Palestine

Rwanda

DR Congo 220,377

Ethiopia 253,779

Somalia

Kenya 281,692

Yemen 255,894

South Sudan

2011: Political conflict leads to the establishment of South Sudan.

Ethiopia 421,373

Sri Lanka

India 61,842

Chad 324,327

Conflicts exacerbated by desertification lead to a

protracted Sudanese refugee crisis.

Sudan

Ethiopia 43,892

South Sudan 261,983

Egypt 126,688

2011: Anti-government protests and government retaliation lead to the ongoing Syrian civil war.

Iraq 247,057

Syria

Jordan 653,031

Lebanon 992,127

Turkey 3,424,237

1979: Refugees escape violence at the end of the Vietnam War.

Vietnam

China 321,502

Algeria 90,000

Western Sahara

Mauritania 26,001

Origin

country

Asylum country

2017 total

1960

‘65

‘70

‘75

‘80

‘85

‘90

‘95

2000

‘05

‘10

2015

*DEFINITION DOES NOT CAPTURE SMALLER PROLONGED REFUGEE SITUATIONS. DATA DOES NOT INCLUDE THE 5.4 MILLION PALESTINE REFUGEES UNDER UNRWA.

TAYLOR MAGGIACOMO AND RYAN WILLIAMS, NG STAFF. DATA SOURCE: UNITED NATIONS HIGH COMMISSIONER FOR REFUGEES