Tidal wave of refugees does not exist

Are there really more refugees than ever?
No, says professor Hein de Haas: refugees are a small and quite stable proportion of migration. Less than 0,3% of the world population!
Addressing refugee migration is a “matter of willpower; not of numbers”.

Refugees: A small and relatively stable proportion of world migration

By professor Hein de Haas

The recent news coverage about migration, and particularly the ‘refugee crisis’, often gives the impression that border crossings by asylum seekers and refugees are an important or even the main source of migration in the current world.

This perception adds to the widespread idea that the world is facing a swelling tide of people leaving war-torn countries that is threatening to run out of hand, and that therefore requires urgent action.

This crisis narrative is reinforced by international organisations like the UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees), IOM (International Organization for Migration), and the United Nation’s population division, who regularly release press statements – repeated in the news media all over the world – reporting that the number of refugees and migrants has reached an all-time high. This usually goes hand in hand with calls for urgent action to address this pressing issue.

hein de haas: number of refugees = 0,3% of world population: a quite stable number.
As so often with migration, the reality is more nuanced. In fact, the total number of refugees as a share of all migrants in the world is rather limited, and has remained remarkably stable if we look at long term trends. According to official figures compiled by the UNHCR there are currently about 16.1 million refugees under their mandate. This figure would rise to 21.1 million if we include Palestinian refugees, who do not fall under UNHCR’s mandate.

This is less than 0.3 percent of the total world population (7.4 billion people), and about 10 per cent of the total estimated number of international migrants, which currently hovers around 220-230 million (excluding refugees). While the international migrant population counted as a percentage of the world population has remained remarkably stable on levels of around 3 percent of the world population since 1960, refugee numbers have shown more fluctuations, mainly depending on the level of conflict in origin areas.

Between 1990 and 2010 the number of refugees showed a declining overall trend. This decrease mainly reflected a decreasing level of violent conflicts in Africa and Latin America. In 2010 the total number of refugees in the world was estimated at 16 million. In recent years these numbers increased again to 21 million, mainly as a result of the Syrian civil war. But on world scale this is a relatively limited increase. This recent increase is not unprecedented, because also other conflicts such as in former Yugoslavia have led to major temporary spikes in refugee numbers.

Only a minority of the world refugee population end up in wealthy countries. According to UNHCR about 86 per cent of all refugees stays in developing countries, and this share has increased rather than decreased over recent decades. Poor countries such as Kenya, Afghanistan and host huge refugee populations. The large majority of Syrian refugees stay in Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan.

Does that mean that there is no problem? Of course not. The unwillingness of the world community to host sufficient numbers of refugees and their indifference of many governments to plight of refugees, has been one of the most pressing issues of humanitarian concern over the past decades.

But the problem is fundamentally not one of numbers, but of international cooperation, solidarity and willingness to really address this problem. Particularly since the end of the Cold War, Western countries have shown a decreasing willingness to welcome refugee populations, and have systematically tried to prevent their legal entry.

It is therefore a misleading – and ultimately self-defeating – strategy to keep on repeating, every year again, that total numbers of refugees (or migrants) have reached another all-time high. This ignores that relative to the total migrant and world population, the the total number of refugees is relatively small, and that, on the longer term, refugee numbers have remained relatively stable.

There is 1 refugee for every 352 people worldwide. It would therefore be outrageous to suggest that, in numerical terms, the international community would not have the resources to provide refugees with a safe new home and perspective on the future – if only it can get its act together.

It is therefore a matter of willpower; Not of numbers.

Understandably, international organizations have an interest in raising public awareness about the plight of refugees. However, their emphasis on ‘highest ever’ numbers is counterproductive and may ultimately undermine the case for refugee protection, which is the exact opposite of the mandate of these organisations.

By hugely exaggerating the true scale and increase of refugee migration these organisations reinforce the crisis narrative and extremism that undermines public support for refugee support and that reinforces extremism. In this way, their ‘refugee migration is at an all-time high’ public statements may well contribute to the same migration panic and xenophobia these organisations simultaneously tend to decry.

Hein de Haas


Hein de Haas is a migration researcher.
Professor of Sociology, University of Amsterdam / Research Associate, International Migration Institute (IMI), University of Oxford / Honorary Professor of Migration and Development, Maastricht University.

This article was published earlier on his personal blog.

Text: Hein de Haas
Graphic: Hein de Haas, reproduced by Bas Thijs
Photo: Bas Thijs


Een gedachte over “Tidal wave of refugees does not exist”

  1. Ik had al het vermoeden: er zijn relatief niet zoveel vluchtelingen, maar er is wel veel meer vreemdelingenhaat. Helaas zet je daar niet zo makkelijk een hek omheen. Oorzaken? Ook bekend: afbreken van de communeautaire structuren, bestaansonzekerheid en alles wat daar weer achter schuil gaat. ‘Theologischer’: een cultuur waarin ongeloof, wanhoop en haat in de etalage worden gezet. (U kent de tegenovergestelden nog?). Daarin floreert de zondenbok weer net zo als in de jaren ’30 van de vorige eeuw. Medicijnen waar je nog zieker van wordt? Nationalisme en escapisme (‘-exits’). Een beter medicijn? Het aanleren dat we uiteindelijk allemaal maar ‘perigrini’, vreemdelingen op aarde zijn (Augustinus).

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