Refugees and internally displaced people

Ghazal Sotoudeh/MSF

In 2016, 10.3 million people were forced to leave their homes because of conflict or persecution. That’s the equivalent of 28,300 people every day.

More than 65.6 million people worldwide have been forcibly displaced.

MSF works around the world to provide refugees and internally displaced people with medical and psychological care, as well as lifesaving nutrition.

We set up hospitals in camps for refugees and displaced people, help women give birth safely, vaccinate children to prevent epidemics, and provide access to safe drinking water.

Facts about Refugees & IDPs

  • A refugee is a person who has fled his/her country and cannot return because of a well-founded fear of persecution due to their race, religion, nationality, or membership of a particular social group.

  • IDPs are not defined as refugees because although they have been forced out of their homes, they have not fled their country.

  • There are more than 22.5 million refugees around the world and 51 per cent of them are under the age of 18.

  • There are more than 40.3 million internally displaced people worldwide.

  • There are also 2.8 million asylum-seekers, people whose claim for refugee status has not yet been definitively evaluated.

  • Developing regions host 84 per cent of the world’s refugees.

  • Turkey hosts the biggest refugee population (2.9 million at the end of 2016). Most are from Syria.

Refugees and International Law

Refugees are protected under international law.

The United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR) is responsible for ensuring that refugees have the right to seek asylum, to receive assistance – food, shelter, medical care – to protection from violence and to bringing about a lasting solution to their situation.  

However, some policies are designed to deter refugees from seeking asylum: policies that condone inadequate processing or simply turn refugees away.

As well as providing healthcare and sanitation for refugees, we believe it's important to speak out about these policies.

Internally displaced people

While internally displaced people often flee their homes for similar reasons to refugees (armed conflict, human rights violations, natural disasters) technically, they are not refugees. Internally displaced people have not crossed an international border to find refuge and remain legally under the protection of their own governments, even though governments are often the cause of their flight.

At the end of 2016, 40.3 million people were living in a situation of protracted internal displacement because of conflict and violence. Of these, 6.9 million were displaced in 2016 alone.

It is estimated that 9 million people were internally displaced between January and June 2017 due to conflict and natural disasters. Of these displacements, 4.6 million were due to conflict.

Despite international law calling for the protection of civilians in conflict, women and children are often deliberately targeted by belligerents as part of their strategy.

And, while programmes exist to provide surgical and other care to these victims, the vast majority will not receive the care they need because they live in regions where the healthcare system has collapsed and where it is too dangerous for independent aid agencies to operate.

In 2016, MSF assisted internally displaced people in 16 countries: Cameroon, Central African Republic, Chad, Colombia, Democratic Republic of Congo, Iraq, Libya, Mozambique, Myanmar, Niger, Nigeria, South Sudan, Syria, Sudan, Ukraine and Yemen.

Search and rescue operations at sea

Men, women and children fleeing wars, persecution, poverty and insecurity have no safe and legal way to seek protection in Europe and continue to attempt the deadly Mediterranean Sea crossing. In 2016, more than 300,000 people risked their lives in this way and 4,581 died at sea. Most were from sub-Saharan Africa and had embarked in Libya.  

Medical teams on board search and rescue boats treated violence-related injuries resulting from time in detention, torture and other ill-treatment, including sexual violence. Medical care was also given to people with skin diseases, dehydration, hypothermia, scabies and serious injuries such as chemical burns caused by fuel mixing with sea water during the crossing.

Between 2015, when MSF began search and rescue operations, and June 2017, our teams assisted 68,000 people at sea.

In August 2017, we announced the suspension of activities of one of our boats, Prudence, following threats by the Libyan authorities on operating in the international waters near Libya.

Our dedicated search and rescue website provides details of our search and rescue operations and answers frequently asked questions. 

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