Trends and Patterns of Global Refugee Migration

Sonja Fransen and Hein de Haas

Population and Development Review, Volume 48, Issue 1 (2022)


This paper examines long-term trends and patterns in global refugee migration between 1951 and 2018, in terms of the intensity, geographic reach, and regional orientation of refugee migration. The author notes that large-scale refugee movements are not a new phenomenon, and that in the aftermath of World War II, the global displaced population had risen to 175 million, approximately 8 percent of the world population at the time and much higher than current levels.

The authors construct and analyze indices that capture the intensity (refugees as a percentage of the world population), emigration intensity (refugees as a percentage of origin-country populations), immigration intensity (refugees as a percentage of destination-country populations), spread (global spread of migrants across all possible bilateral migration corridors), and distance of refugee migration, drawing on data from UNHCR’s Population Statistics Database.

Main findings:

  • Estimates of global displacement have increased dramatically over the past five decades, from 1.8 million in 1951 to 44 million in the early 1990s to 62 million by 2018. Most of the increase since the early 2000s is driven by a sharp increase in IDP numbers, reflecting improved statistical coverage of IDPs and the inclusion of people in IDP-like situations.
  • Refugee migration has fluctuated between 0.1 and 0.3 percent of the world population, depending on levels of conflict. This suggests that there has not been a long-term increase in global levels of refugee migration.
  • Increases in the numbers of globally displaced are largely driven by the inclusion of populations and countries that were previously excluded from the dataset. The total number of displaced as a share of the world population increased from 0.10 to 0.27 percent since the early 2000s, due to the inclusion of IDP data (between the early 2000s and 2018, the number of IDPs as a percentage of the world population increased from 0.07 to 0.5 percent).
  • Earlier UNHCR data may have underrepresented true refugee numbers, due to poor geographical coverage. Since WWII, the intensity of violent conflicts and government oppression seems to have shown a decreasing rather than an increasing trend. In the early 1950s, the number of battle-related deaths in state-based conflicts was at an all-time high, while reported refugee stocks were relatively low.
  • The trend in refugee intensity (refugees as a percentage of either origin or host country population) fluctuates over time, and does not reflect an increasing trend in refugee migration post 1980. The authors consider a fixed set of countries for which there are data for each year since 1980, and find that the intensity fluctuates rather than increases. The authors conclude, therefore, that what appears to be an increase in refugee migration reflects the growing number of countries included in UNHCR data rather than a real increase in refugee migration.
  • Refugees have tended to come from a shrinking number of origin countries and move to an increasing variety of destination countries over recent decades. The bulk of the global refugee population comes from a relatively small number of countries. Refugees also concentrate in a relatively small number of destinations, but there is some evidence that the number of destination countries has been increasing and diversifying. The percentage of global refugees living in the top 15 refugee-hosting countries decreased from 84 percent in 1980 to 75 percent in 2018.
  • Although most refugees remain near their origin countries, the average distance between origin and destination countries has increased over time. Regions with high refugee outmigration (particularly West Asia and East and Central Africa) also host relatively large refugee populations. The percentage of refugees remaining in their own region declined from 98 percent in 1980 to 83 percent in 2018, suggesting diversification of destinations and further travels of refugees over time. While most refugees in Africa, Asia and the Americas also originate from these regions, the majority of refugees in Europe and Oceania came from other continents. The average geographic distance between origin and destination country has increased over time. Between 1980 and 2018, the average distance that refugees traveled increased by 40 percent. On average, refugees travel shorter distances than voluntary migrants.
  • Most refugees originate from low-income countries and these numbers have increased over time. The majority of the world’s refugees are also hosted by low-income countries.

The authors conclude that recent surges in refugee numbers as well as asylum applications in Western countries do not reflect a structural change in the trends and patterns of global refugee migration but, rather, reflect a “normal” and therefore temporary response to recent increases in conflict levels in particular countries, with refugee numbers usually going down again after the conflicts subside.