Where Do Refugees Go?

Hint: It's Not North America

Imagine you’ve been forced from your home and country for fear for your life. Unbeknownst to you you are joining twenty million fellow travellers in a quest for safety. You quickly realize that you have three choices.

  1. Join a UNHCR sponsored refugee camp where you will be sheltered and fed but usually not allowed to work for fear of driving down domestic wages - living a life on hold.
  2. Live in urban areas without support and work illegally and potentially face exploitation.
  3. Sometimes at great peril try to reach a safer country and convince the authorities there that you qualify as a refugee.

What would you do? Refugees continue to remain in the news. So I wanted to gain a deeper understanding of the issue. What is a refugee? Where do they come from and where do they go?

If people are compelled to move from their home because of persecution, war or violence the United Nations deems them internally displaced persons. The moment they cross a country border they may become a refugee if their claim of fear of persecution is considered well-founded by a host country. Sometimes they are referred to as asylum seekers. Refugees have a list of legal protections spelled out in the Convention and Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees. In Canada, the 1951 Convention and 1967 Protocol are implemented through the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act.

Right now, more people have been forcibly displaced from their home through persecution, conflict, violence or human rights violations than even after WW II. This is curious because, if you believe Steven Pinker the Harvard University psychologist, the world is a much more peaceful place than it’s ever been before. Though not everyone agrees.

The Oxford Professor, Alexander Betts, attributes the rise in the refugee population to the increase in the number of fragile states:

While there are now fewer repressive or authoritarian states than in the Cold War era, there has been an increase in the number of fragile states since the end of the Cold War. This trend means fewer people are fleeing persecution resulting from the acts of states, while more are fleeing human rights deprivations resulting from the omissions of weak states that are unable or unwilling to ensure fundamental rights. - Alexander Betts

Whatever the exact cause, it can’t be denied that the current number of refugees globally is a large, hard problem.

As of the end of 2017 these five countries accounted for 68% of all refugees worldwide: Syria, Afghanistan, South Sudan, Somalia, Myanmar. The Sankey diagram below shows the origin countries of refugees on the left and their acceptance as refugees in a host country on the right. More than half of Syria’s 6.3 million refugees are in Turkey.

The line flowing to Canada is so thin because of geography. Surrounded by three oceans and a single country to the south, Canada is a hard place to get to. Canadian rules state that there are only two ways to become accepted as a refugee:

  1. Be chosen by the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR), along with private sponsors for resettlement. You cannot apply directly to Canada for resettlement.
  2. Apply at any port of entry to Canada. This means an airport, seaport or land border. Knocking on the door of the Canadian embassy in Turkey won’t get you very far.

How well is this system working? It’s easy to see how many refugees Canada has accepted but quite another thing to evaluate it. Is this number good? Can we do better? I find it helpful as a baseline to see see what other countries do. That doesn’t mean it’s right for Canada but it layers on more context to the issue.

Let’s stick with the 23 host countries in the Sankey diagram above and compare the number of refugees they’ve accepted from anywhere in 2017. What single measurement fairly reflects how many refugees a country absorbs? What is fair? Is it fair that a country with a GDP of 26 billion should accept more than a country with a GDP of almost 20 trillion, one thousand times greater? I’ll assume that richer and more populous countries should accept more refugees and our measure of comparison should reflect this.

  • Note: This is a log graph so as to be able to include the very high numbers at the bottom while maintaining differentiation with the small numbers.


Using this measurement, Canada ranks 22nd out of 23 countries. Even below the U.S! How is that possible? Although the U.S. is 1.3X wealthier per person than Canada they accept 2.7X more refugees than Canada, just not from countries that are creating the most refugees. That’s not America’s focus. Here is where all of America’s refugees came from in 2017.

Rank Origin Number
1 China 74,476
2 El Salvador 18,763
3 Haiti 17,055
4 Guatemala 14,971
5 Egypt 11,926
6 Honduras 10,107
7 Ethiopia 9,987
8 Mexico 7,709
9 Syrian Arab Rep. 7,282
10 Nepal 6,907
11 Iraq 6,130
12 Iran (Islamic Rep. of) 5,536
13 Russian Federation 5,463
14 Venezuela (Bolivarian Republic of) 5,402
15 Eritrea 5,145
16 India 4,836
17 Various/Unknown 4,506
18 Colombia 4,264
19 Cameroon 3,992
20 Pakistan 3,308
21 Guinea 2,305
22 Somalia 2,297
23 Kenya 2,087
24 Indonesia 1,834
25 Ukraine 1,812
26 Armenia 1,663
27 Myanmar 1,623
28 Afghanistan 1,564
29 Belarus 1,537
30 Albania 1,527
31 Gambia 1,503
32 Rep. of Moldova 1,400
33 Sudan 1,382
34 Congo 1,331
35 Uganda 1,301
36 Kyrgyzstan 1,270
37 Sri Lanka 1,270
38 Côte d’Ivoire 1,263
39 Bangladesh 1,248
40 Uzbekistan 1,210
41 Mali 1,191
42 Liberia 1,179
43 Burkina Faso 1,163
44 Nigeria 1,154
45 Rwanda 1,079
46 Zimbabwe 1,049
47 Serbia and Kosovo (S/RES/1244 (1999)) 1,039
48 Ecuador 948
49 Mauritania 944
50 Dem. Rep. of the Congo 939
51 Mongolia 766
52 Burundi 747
53 Kazakhstan 707
54 Jamaica 697
55 Togo 604
56 Brazil 593
57 Nicaragua 563
58 Yemen 549
59 Peru 528
60 Sierra Leone 523
61 Stateless 455
62 Cuba 431
63 Jordan 428
64 Turkey 428
65 Ghana 399
66 Saudi Arabia 391
67 Senegal 388
68 Georgia 382
69 Lebanon 378
70 Romania 371
71 Bulgaria 352
72 Chad 335
73 Azerbaijan 298
74 Tajikistan 283
75 Djibouti 282
76 Libya 280
77 Estonia 266
78 Viet Nam 256
79 Fiji 231
80 Central African Rep. 210
81 Bahamas 179
82 Dominican Rep. 179
83 Costa Rica 170
84 Turkmenistan 159
85 Angola 157
86 Philippines 145
87 Cambodia 139
88 Israel 138
89 Niger 138
90 United Rep. of Tanzania 133
91 Algeria 131
92 Kuwait 130
93 Morocco 114
94 Bolivia (Plurinational State of) 113
95 Montenegro 109
96 Lao People’s Dem. Rep. 108
97 The former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia 108
98 Bosnia and Herzegovina 101
99 Benin 97
100 Malaysia 93
101 Guyana 75
102 Argentina 55
103 Trinidad and Tobago 55
104 Tunisia 54
105 Bahrain 45
106 Namibia 45
107 Zambia 44
108 Belize 43
109 Bhutan 43
110 Canada 42
111 Gabon 40
112 Germany 40
113 South Africa 40
114 United Arab Emirates 39
115 United Kingdom 39
116 Curaçao 35
117 Croatia 34
118 Malawi 33
119 Belgium 32
120 Mauritius 31
121 Saint Vincent and the Grenadines 31
122 Rep. of Korea 29
123 Thailand 29
124 Chile 27
125 France 24
126 Grenada 24
127 Guinea-Bissau 24
128 Poland 23
129 Italy 20
130 Lithuania 20
131 Latvia 19
132 Niue 19
133 Paraguay 19
134 Czech Rep. 18
135 Hungary 18
136 Madagascar 17
137 Greece 15
138 Panama 15
139 Singapore 15
140 Turks and Caicos Islands 14
141 Netherlands 13
142 Qatar 13
143 Dem. People’s Rep. of Korea 12
144 Spain 11
145 Dominica 10
146 Slovakia 10
147 Equatorial Guinea 9
148 Saint Lucia 9
149 Suriname 9
150 Sweden 8
151 Marshall Islands 7
152 South Sudan 7
153 Cayman Islands 6
154 Japan 6
155 Lesotho 6
156 Maldives 6

Source: UNHCR

Almost half came from China, El Salvador, Haiti, Guatemala, and Egypt. The 42 refugees from Canada were likely, “children born in Canada to refugees who had been temporarily in Canada before entering the US” according to the UNHCR.

The U.S. statistics got me thinking about Uganda. How does a country with 0.1% of the GDP of the U.S. and 13% of the population accept 4.7X more refugees in 2017? Obviously, geography is a factor that has put Uganda in close proximity to countries in turmoil. Yet, even after absorbing more than one million refugees, 95% of Ugandans approved or strongly approved of, “Government providing security assistance to refugees.” At the same time, 51% of Americans believe the U.S. has a responsibility to accept refugees into the country. Broken down by party lines it’s a vast chasm between the 74% of Democrats who believe the US has a responsibility and the 68% of Republicans who state that the U.S. does not have a responsibility to accept refugees into the country.

Ugandans have a different attitude toward refugees than Americans. To most westerners the only things that probably come to mind about Uganda are Idi Amin in the 70s and the Israeli raid at Entebbe. So it’s probably surprising that Uganda is increasingly looked upon as a model on how to integrate refugees. But always with bumps along the way.

Alexander Betts who I quoted earlier thinks a lot about refugees. To understand this multi-faceted issue greater you can read a book he co wrote Refuge: Transforming a Broken Refugee System or listen to his TED talk