A Look at the Global Refugee Crisis

And where most refugees are coming from worldwide

The rise of Nationalism and the election of Donald Trump have resulted in an attitude shift and policy changes that directly affect the way the United States handles both refugees and immigration in general.

Perhaps the most infamous of these policies was Trump’s 2017 executive orders stopping all refugee admissions and temporarily banning people from eight countries, such that “most citizens of Iran, Libya, Syria, Yemen, Somalia, Chad and North Korea [were] barred from entering the United States, along with some groups of people from Venezuela.” (Note: This is his third travel related ban, two of which were temporary and have since expired).

However, the US Court of Appeals overturned this indefinite ban after the state of Hawaii sued over grounds that “Mr. Trump had exceeded the authority Congress had given him over immigration and had violated a part of the immigration laws barring discrimination in the issuance of visas”. The Supreme Court has decided to hear the case in order to determine whether this ban is legally within presidential authority.

With a Supreme Court ruling due in June 2018, we wanted to examine refugee statistics to understand who’s applying for asylum in the United States, who’s getting accepted, and how our refugee policies compare to other nations.

What does it mean to be a refugee?

According to the UN, a refugee is:



Someone who has been forced to flee his or her country because of persecution, war, or violence. A refugee has a well-founded fear of persecution for reasons of race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a particular social group.

Who are the potential refugees?

Using the UN Refugee Agency’s dataset on “persons of concern”, we compiled statistics on individuals most at risk of becoming refugees, organized by the country they are coming from.

A Person of Concern is defined as someone in one of the following conditions:

  • Refugee (they’ve been accepted into another country)
  • Asylum-Seeker (they’ve applied for refuge in another country)
  • Internally Displaced Person (they’re on the run inside of their home country)
  • Returned Refugee (they’ve returned to their home country after fleeing)
  • Stateless Person (they’re not considered as a national anywhere)

Here we see the ten countries with the highest number of persons of concern in 2016, the most recent year for which the UN Refugee Agency has compiled and released data. Every country represented here has at least two million persons-of-concern by the Agency’s definition.

Five countries — Syria, Colombia, Iraq, Afghanistan, and South Sudan — account for over 50% of all persons of concern worldwide in 2016.

In the face of conflict or persecution in their homeland, persons of concern have limited options. Some will choose to flee their country, becoming asylum-seekers abroad looking for refugee status.

In 2016, more than 5.5 million Syrian refugees were living somewhere outside their country. The total number of Syrian refugees has been increasing in each year since 2011, when mass protests triggered the start of the Syrian Civil War. It’s the largest number of refugees from a single country since the throes of the Afghan Civil War in 1990-91.

Other persons of concern, however, may relocate within their country, either because they want to stay closer to home or because they may not have the means to travel abroad. These persons are referred to as Internally Displaced Persons or IDPs. Unlike refugees, IDPs aren’t afforded rights and protections under international law.

In 2016, Colombia had the largest population of IDPs living within its borders. Five decades of fighting between the Colombian government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) have led to mass displacement. Even with the signing of a peace agreement in 2016, the number of IDPs has not decreased.

Where are refugees coming from in the U.S.?

In order to become an officially recognized refugee in the United States, you must first be granted refugee status, which is determined by the I-589, Application for Asylum and for Withholding of Removal. This application determines whether a person is granted refugee status in the US, meaning if they are denied they are not allowed to stay in the country even if there is a real threat against them.

In the United States, the number of refugees accepted per year is determined by a ceiling set by the current president. Between 2000 and 2016, this number hovered between 70,000 and 90,000 people. However, President Trump recently set a refugee ceiling of 45,000 people in FY 2018, which “[is] the tightest limit on refugee admissions since the White House began setting caps on the number in 1980”.

In addition to an overall ceiling, the State Department sets a limit on the number of refugees possibly accepted on a regional basis. Since 2008, the Near East/South Asia region — including countries like Iraq, Iran, and Syria — has been afforded the highest ceiling.

In order to understand the refugees accepted under these ceilings, we explored data from the US Refugee Processing Center, a group operated within the U.S Department of State (DOS) Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration (PRM).

From 2002 to 2017, over 35% of refugees admitted to the U.S. originated from Near East/South Asia, followed by Africa at 28%. The number of Near East/South Asian refugees peaked in 2016, but decreased sharply during Trump’s first full year in office.

The majority of refugees admitted from 2002 to 2017 identify as either Christian (in any form) or Muslim (in any form). The admission of Muslim refugees actually surpassed that of Christians in 2016, when 44,396 Muslims were accepted. The very next year, however, the number of Muslim refugees dropped nearly 75%. Christians refugees became the plurality once again, as they have been for much of the last 15 years.

How does the United States compare to other countries?

The United States’s codified support for refugees dates back to 1965, when Congress amended the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA) to offer visas to foreigners facing persecution. Ever since, the U.S. has shouldered some responsibility in sheltering and protecting the world’s most vulnerable.

Still, are we doing enough? In 2016, the United States ranked 18th globally in terms of most refugees admitted according to UNHCR data, behind countries like Germany, China, and France.

It’s important to remember, however, that a key factor for many refugees in choosing a destination is proximity. Refugees often settle in a country close to home, in part because they may not have the resources necessary to travel much further. It may also be a matter of international law; the Dublin III regulation, for instance, says that the E.U. nation in which an asylum seeker first arrives is responsible for processing the claim. Oftentimes, the nation in which asylum seekers first arrive also happens to be the closest.

Show me the outflow of refugees from

Take refugees fleeing Syria as an example. Of the 5.5 million Syrian refugees in 2016, over half of them sought asylum in bordering Turkey. Lebanon and Jordan were the second and third most popular options, even though both ranked low on the World Bank’s political stability index.

The United States, meanwhile, took in less about 0.1% of total Syrian refugees in 2016.

By contrast, the United States took in about 90% of the 12,534 refugees from Guatemala. Though Guatemala doesn’t share a border with the U.S., it is accessible via Mexico. For those fleeing Guatemalan gang violence, or drug wars, the U.S. is a likely option.

Search for a country to discover how many refugees originated from there in 2016, where they sought asylum, and what share of those refugees found a new home in the U.S.

While we can’t overlook the importance of proximity, it’s still clear that the United States is taking in a relatively small share of the millions of refugees in need worldwide. And while we won’t have 2018 statistics for some time, early signs indicate that Trump’s policies are taking hold: just 11 Syrian refugees were admitted to the United States in the first 3.5 months of 2018 according to NPR. Even with an important Supreme Court ruling looming, the United States’s retreat from the refugee crisis is already well underway.


We queried the UN Refugee Agency database to get the persons of concern data for 2000-2016, which powered the IDP and refugee bar charts over time as well as the Sankey diagrams for each country.

The overall US refugee ceiling data as well as the per region ceiling data was sourced from the current Department of State website and the archived websites (a new Department of State website is created for each President).

We collected the religion of the refugees coming into the US from WRAPS, specifically the Arrivals by Nationality and Religion database. WRAPS is a “collaborative computer system built to assist in the processing of refugees to the United States” built by the US Refugee Processing Center, a group operated within the U.S Department of State (DOS) Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration (PRM).

Nerd Notes:

Data cleaning and analysis was done with Python and Pandas.

Graphics were made in D3.js.