July 6, 2020

Refugees by the Numbers


By Alexis Herr, PhD


Commenting on the Office of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees’ (UNHCR) latest Global Trends study on refugees, Filippo Grandi, the UN’s High Commissioner for Refugees, stated, “By any measure this is an unacceptable number.” The study states that an unprecedented 65.5 million people were uprooted from their homes by conflict and persecution at the end of 2016. If you are like me, this number is so large it is hard to conceptualize. To help us contextualize the magnitude of the world’s refugee population and the humanitarian crisis it represents, here are some visualizations of that data.



To put this data in perspective, 65 million refugees is more than the population of the entire state of California (39.14 million), greater than the whole population of Canada (35.85 million), and more than all of Italy’s population (60.8 million). The world refugee population represents 37 percent of Mexico’s total population (127 million) and 20 percent of the population of the US (321 million). The world population (as of May 2017) is an estimated 7.5 billion, which means that one person in 113 of the world’s population are refugees.


To try and give us a greater understanding of this looming 65 million persons, let us try it in a different way. Many of us are familiar with the iconic images of New York’s Times Square on New Year’s Eve. The crowd seems endless and if you have ever been one of the many who attend, it has surely felt that way. Last year, 2 million people flocked to Times Squares to watch the ball drop. The world refugee population is 32.5 times bigger than the number of people who attended NYE in Times Square.


Let’s try another scenario. In 2014 a gigantic crowd of 5,154,386 people attended FIFA Fan Fests in Brazil during the World Cup. The world refugee population 12.6 times greater than the number of people who attend the 2014 FIFA Fan Fests in Brazil.


And, just for fun, let’s do one more. Some 1.8 million people attended President Barack Obama’s inauguration on the National Mall in 2009. The world refugee population is 36.1. times greater than the number of people who attended President Obama’s inauguration in 2009. I would provide the same statistics for President Trump’s inauguration, but apparently, those numbers are still disputed.



Thinking about the number of refugees in comparison to these other values reinforces Commissioner Grandi’s comment that 65 million refugees is an unacceptable number. This giant number reflects the ongoing conflicts that continue to take a toll on human life and the victims’ futures, homes, families, communities, and history. The destruction of Syria has killed hundreds of thousands and uprooted more than a million people. The US takes in refugees from all over the world and according to the Pew Research Center, of the 84,995 refugees admitted to the US in the fiscal year of 2016, the largest groups came from the Democratic Republic of Congo (19 percent or 16,370), Syria (15 percent or 12,587), Burma (15 percent or 12,347), Iraq (12 percent or 9,8880), and Somalia (11 percent or 9,020). While it is easy enough these days to find front page articles in the main newspapers about the war in Syria, we see far less information about the bloodletting in Congo and Somalia, for example, that forces thousands to flee their homes.


Perhaps the greatest danger with a number like 65,000,000 it is so massive that we fail to look at it as an active body and representative of numerous conflicts, all of which deserve our attention. While it would be impossible for many of us to stay abreast of all the world’s ongoing problems, I am a strong advocate of picking one and dedicating either your time, energy, money (or all three) to make a difference to the victims of at least one ongoing tragedy. 65 million refugees also represent millions of different ways to help those who need it most.



Photo by Russell Watkins
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