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refugee: The Contemporary Refugee Problem

The world refugee problem has remained acute. When the Indian subcontinent was partitioned in 1947, millions of people were forced to migrate. Steady streams of refugees left China and East Germany, especially in the 1950s. The Korean War produced some 9 million refugees. Other major refugee-creating events of the 1950s include the Hungarian Revolution (1956) and the uprising in Tibet (1958–59). Sub-Saharan Africa's massive refugee problem is rooted in the continent's colonial past. Before colonization, Africans had moved freely within their own tribal areas. However, the boundaries fixed by 19th-century colonial powers often cut across tribal areas, resulting, particularly after independence, in mass movements of refugees across national borders. By the early 1990s there were close to 7 million refugees in Africa, including 4.5 million displaced Sudanese. The Arab-Israeli War of 1967 expanded an already swollen Palestinian refugee population in the Middle East (now estimated at 5.2 million), and hundreds of thousands Lebanese also fled (largely to other parts of Lebanon) when Israel invaded in 1982 and 2007. The Vietnam War and Cambodian civil war created large numbers of Southeast Asian refugees; the India-Pakistan War of 1971 produced about 10 million refugees, most repatriated to newly created Bangladesh.

In the 1980s and 90s fighting in Afghanistan created large Afghan refugee populations in Pakistan and Iran, and in the latter decade the conflicts in the former Yugoslavia, especially in Croatia, Bosnia, and Kosovo displaced hundreds of thousands within Europe. Conflicts in Uganda, Burundi Rwanda, and Zaïre/Congo, which sometimes spilled from one nation to the other, as well as fighting in Sudan, Somalia, and Iraq disrupted the lives of millions in the late 20th cent. and early 21st cent. Subsequently, the Syrian civil war that began in 2011 created several million international refugees by mid-decade, mostly in Turkey, Lebanon, and Jordan, and Turkey; more than a million of these and other refugees and migrants fled to the European Union nations in 2015. Civil strife in South Sudan and the Central African Republic in the same decade displaced hundreds of thousands.

At the end of 2015 the world's international refugee population as tracked by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees was about 16.1 million, not including the above-mentioned Palestinians. The largest displacements involved some 4.9 million Syrians living in Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, and other nations; 2.7 million Afghans living in Pakistan, Iran, and other nations; and 1.1 million Somalis in Kenya, Ethiopia, and other nations. Hundreds of thousands of South Sudanese, Sudanese, Congolese, Central Africans, Myanmarese, Eritreans, Ukrainians, Pakistanis, Burundians, Rwandans, and Iraqis were also refugees. In addition, there were an estimated 40.8 million internally displaced persons, individuals forced from their homes within the boundaries of their own countries. Colombia, Syria, Iraq, Sudan, Yemen, Nigeria, South Sudan, Congo (Kinshasa), Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Somalia were the nations with the largest numbers of internal refugees.

In the face of these numbers, and the expense of administering aid, private relief agencies such as CARE and Oxfam fight overwhelming odds; support often rises and falls on media attention. While Southeast Asians, Cuban, and Soviet refugees found political support in the United States, far fewer refugees from Central America, Haiti, Africa, or Syria gained entry. Many governments refuse asylum to refugees; meanwhile, long-term refugees suffer various psychological hardships, and the root causes of the problem—war, famine, epidemics—remain unsolved.

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

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