Sociology Forced Migration
Greta A. Gilbertson, Mary G. Powers
  • LAST REVIEWED: 28 September 2016
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 September 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756384-0181


This entry reviews trends and changes in forced migration, specifically in the population defined by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) as persons of concern, comprising refugees, some internally displaced persons, asylum seekers, stateless persons, and returnees. The UNHCR has an international mandate to provide assistance and protection to persons classified in any of these categories, and to determine whether relocation to a third country is necessary. Over sixty years ago the international community, through the United Nations, began articulating and adopting a number of conventions and agreements concerning the rights and protections of refugees and asylum seekers. These followed the global recognition of the fundamental right to move stated in Article 13 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights adopted by the UN General Assembly in 1948. That article states, “Everyone has the right to freedom of movement and residence within the borders of each state,” and “Everyone has the right to leave any country, including his own, and to return to his country.” It should be noted, however, that no country is obligated to receive someone from another country. The 1951 United Nations Protocol Relating to Status of Refugees was developed in the aftermath of World War II in order to codify the obligations of states to protect the victims of persecution. As amended in 1967, a refugee is more broadly defined as a person who “owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country; or who, not having a nationality and being outside the country of his former habitual residence as a result of such events, is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to return to it.” There has also been increasing concern with internally displaced persons in recent UNHCR reports, which are cited below. The UN protocols also provide for protection in the form of the principle of non-refoulement, whereby states agree not to expel or return a refugee to a territory where he or she has reason to fear persecution. This extends to persons who fall outside of the Convention definition of a refugee, namely those affected by armed conflict or other conditions, such as environmental catastrophes. The Convention and Protocol were ratified by 147 countries. Many argue that the UN Convention definition of a refugee needs to be revised in light of the increases in refugees who do not conform to the UN definition, including some of those fleeing generalized violence and natural disasters. Two regional charters on refugees—the Organization for African Unity’s 1969 Convention Governing the Specific Aspects of Refugee Problems in Africa and the 1984 Cartagena Declaration on Refugees—have adopted a broader refugee definition than the 1951 Convention.

Recent Forced Migration

In 2014, 59.5 million persons were forcibly displaced as a result of wars, persecution, violence, or human rights violations. In the following years, millions of people were forced to leave their homes due to civil wars and conflict in Iraq, Libya, Syria, and Yemen, as well as from the long-running Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Of the 59.5 forcibly displaced persons in 2014, 19.5 million were refugees, 38.2 million were internally displaced persons, and 1.8 were asylum seekers. Of the refugees, 14.4 million were “of concern” under the UNHCR mandate and the rest were registered under the earlier Palestinian UNRWA mandate. All were in need of immediate aid and of assistance with making longer-term plans for repatriation or permanent settlement elsewhere. See United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees 2015b for information on trends in forced displacement. United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees 2015a documents the number and trends in asylum claims. Asylum claims have increased rapidly since the 1980s. For example, in the 1980s there were 2.3 million worldwide applicants for asylum, compared to 2.6 million between 2010 and 2012 alone. An estimated 866,000 asylum claims were made in industrialized countries in 2014, which represents an increase of 45 percent from the prior year, close to the all-time high of almost 900,000 asylum applications recorded in 1992. The top five groups filing asylum claims were from Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Serbia/Kosovo, and Eritrea. These increases occurred despite efforts by industrialized countries to discourage migrants from applying for asylum. See Keely and Russell 1994 for a discussion of developments in the earlier period. Kerwin 2011 provides an updated overview of the refugee and asylum system in the United States. Nearly every country participates in the refugee system, either as a country of origin of the displaced persons, a country of destination, or as a transit country. It is important to note, however, that many countries are reluctant to act positively and quickly, in part because the situation of forcibly displaced persons is viewed not only as a human rights issue, but also as a security issue and a political issue with major economic costs. All of this affects the timely processing of displaced persons through the existing system. Less research has been done on the costs of forced migration than on the costs and benefits of voluntary migration for host nations. Dadush and Niebuhr 2016 notes the high costs of forced migration, both globally and regionally. Regular or voluntary migration occurs slowly or continuously over long time periods. Forced or involuntary migrants often flee in large numbers and over a short time period to the nearest place to avoid danger. Both types of migration have demographic, economic, social, and political implications and consequences for the migrants and the receiving countries. The implications are quite different, as detailed in Dadush and Niebuhr 2016. For example, a large numbers of refugees can place a major burden on existing housing, schools, and other infrastructure.

  • Dadush, Uri, and Mona Niebuhr. 2016. The economic impact of forced migration. Washington, DC: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

    The major focus is on the economic implications of forced migration for the migrants, the host countries, and globally. Discusses the consequences of large numbers of refugees arriving over a short period of time. Notes different characteristics and consequences of forced and voluntary migration.

  • Keely, Charles, and Sharon Stanton Russell. 1994. Responses of industrial countries to asylum seekers. Journal of International Affairs 47.2: 400–417.

    Article discusses the efforts on the part of industrial states to restrict access to asylum seekers in the 1980s. These efforts include visa requirements, acceleration of adjudication procedures, carrier sanctions, and the use of “safe countries.” Industrial countries have also attempted to harmonize asylum efforts and have participated in regional initiatives to address asylum.

  • Kerwin, Donald M. 2011. The faltering U.S. refugee protection system: Legal and policy responses to refugees, asylum seekers, and others in need of protection. Washington, DC: Migration Policy Institute.

    A comprehensive overview of the US refugee protection system. Kerwin argues that policy changes such as detention and interdiction have prevented bona fide asylum seekers from both prevailing in and even making asylum claims.

  • United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. 2015a. UNHCR Asylum trends 2014: Levels and trends in industrialized countries. Geneva, Switzerland: United Nations High Commission for Refugees.

    Provides data on trends and patterns in asylum claims made in thirty-eight European and eight non-European countries in 2014, based on information available as of March 14, 2015.

  • United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. 2015b. UNHCR global trends: Forced displacement in 2014. Geneva, Switzerland: United Nations High Commission for Refugees.

    Provides data on forced displacement. The focus is on trends and changes in 2014 among “persons of concern,” or the population for whom UNHCR is responsible: refugees, asylum-seekers, returnees, internally displaced persons, and stateless persons.

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