World News

The Five Conflicts Driving the Bulk of the World’s Refugee Crisis

Posted June 19, 2018 9:26 p.m. EDT

South Sudan. Syria. Afghanistan. Myanmar. Somalia.

The mention of these nations conjures images of violent conflict — and of humanity on the move.

Many in the affluent West are fearful of a world in which they imagine refugees from these countries are flooding into Europe and the United States at record rates. Those anxieties have driven governments to tighten borders and slash refugee resettlements.

But in reality, the vast majority of the world’s refugees have not gone very far and are largely living in neighboring countries, a fact reasserted in an annual report from the United Nations refugee agency this week.

The report said 68.5 million people worldwide were classified in 2017 as having been forcibly displaced because of conflict and persecution, the highest number since the end of World War II. Among them are 25.4 million refugees — those who have fled to another country to escape war or persecution in their own country and who receive special protections under international law.

Here’s a look at the main conflicts feeding the refugee crisis.


The roots of the Syrian civil war began in 2011 with a peaceful uprising — inspired by the Arab Spring — with large-scale street protests against the government of President Bashar Assad. It escalated into a civil war after a government crackdown.

Within a few years, other factions got involved. The United States supported some of the rebels. Iran and Russia backed forces loyal to Assad. In 2015, a U.S.-led coalition began airstrikes on the Islamic State — which had seized large swaths of northern and eastern Syria. Kurdish forces in the north fought against the government of Assad, Turkey and other rebel groups.

The complexity of the conflict and Assad’s determination to maintain power have perpetuated the war, making Syria the top refugee-producing country in 2017. At least 5.6 million people have fled Syria since 2011, most arriving in Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon. An additional 6.3 million remain internally displaced.


Afghanistan’s protracted war and the Taliban insurgency have made it the second-largest refugee producing country in the world. The roots go back to 1978, when the Soviet Union invaded the country, and some Afghan refugees trace their displacement to that time.

But the bulk of the current refugee crisis derives from a war fought since 2001 by the Afghan government — backed by U.S.-led forces — which has struggled to maintain security and fight the Taliban.

Security worsened in 2017 with the resurgence of the Taliban and other groups, including a local Islamic State affiliate. Countless attacks on civilians have driven many people to leave.

According to the U.N. report, Afghanistan’s refugee population grew by 5 percent to 2.6 million people by the end of 2017, making Afghans the largest refugee population in Asia. Despite Afghanistan’s instability, Pakistan and other countries have begun returning Afghan asylum-seekers.

South Sudan

South Sudan was just 2 years old when civil war erupted in 2013. The conflict began as a feud between forces loyal to President Salva Kiir and then-Vice President Riek Machar and has engulfed the country in ethnic violence and a devastating humanitarian crisis. Tens of thousands have died in the country, the world’s youngest and among the least developed.

Every day, hundreds of South Sudanese refugees cross the border into neighboring Uganda — one of the countries hosting the most refugees in the world, with 1.4 million claiming asylum there from a handful of conflicts in neighboring countries. This year, South Sudan is in the midst of a hunger crisis that is expected to be the worst yet — almost half the population lacked enough to eat in January, a time when food from its farms ordinarily would be plentiful. International officials expect the number of hungry citizens to expand considerably in what are now the lean months. With millions potentially facing acute malnutrition, more refugees are expected.


A flood of Myanmar’s Rohingya people poured across the border into Bangladesh at the end of 2017, fleeing persecution by the Myanmar military and security forces. But the Rohingya, a Muslim minority, have faced violence and discrimination in Myanmar, a majority-Buddhist nation, for decades.

The Rohingya are considered outsiders by the government despite their origins in the country’s Rakhine state. A brutal crackdown on civilians in August after an attack by a Rohingya insurgent group led to the rapid large scale displacement.

Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, the U.N. high commissioner for human rights, has called Myanmar’s campaign against the Rohingya “a textbook example of ethnic cleansing.”

The number of refugees from Myanmar more than doubled from less than half a million at the start of 2017 to 1.2 million by the year’s end. Most are hosted by Bangladesh in poorly planned and overcrowded camps.


A civil war that involved the overthrew of the military government of President Siad Barre in 1991destroyed the state, crippled food production and left the country in chaos. The years since have left Somalia one of the poorest and most desperate nations.

Tens of thousands of Somalis have spent decades living in refugee camps in neighboring nations. When an internationally supported government was installed in 2012, the country seemed to finally move toward stability. But the Shabab extremist group has carried out numerous attacks on the capital, and other insurgent groups including al-Qaida have made gains in the country.

Although Somalia was the fifth-largest source of refugees for 2017 — with 986,400 people having refugee status — the number of Somali refugees actually declined by 3 percent from the previous year. Most live in Kenya, Yemen (currently engulfed in its own civil war) and Ethiopia.

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