60 Million: Understanding the Global Refugee Crisis

Illustration by Syrian artist Diala Brisly

Interview by Jeffrey Donahoe

Last year, the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) announced that there were just under 60 million refugees and internally displaced persons worldwide, the highest number since World War II, and the highest number that UNHCR had ever counted.

Susan Martin and Rochelle Davis recently made time to talk with Georgetown Magazine about refugees, with an emphasis on the frequently changing situation in Syria. Professor Martin is the Donald G. Herzberg Professor of International Migration and director of the Institute for the Study of International Migration at SFS. She will be retiring this spring after a 30-year career in immigration and refugee policy. Professor Davis is associate professor of anthropology at SFS’ Center for Contemporary Arab Studies and director of the Master of Arts in Arab Studies program.

The 60 million figure is astonishing. How did it happen?
Susan Martin: First, last year, there were four L3 humanitarian crises—the designation for the most severe, large-scale emergencies. Syria was the largest, with 8 million internally displaced and about 4 million refugees in neighboring countries. But in addition, there were major crises in South Sudan, Iraq, and Yemen. The prior year saw new displacements from the Central African Republic and Ukraine. So the number of newly displaced during 2014-2015 rose to historic levels.

Refugees and migrants: Professor Martin explains the terms


Refugees are people who have a well-founded fear of persecution. They’re forced to leave because of a protected characteristic like their race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or membership in a particular social group. Migrants are voluntarily moving because they are seeking economic opportunities or joining family members. There are a lot of people in between, though. You can be someone who is forced to leave because there’s a conflict, but you choose to go to someplace where there are economic opportunities. And so you have elements of both, which is what Europe is really struggling with now.

Who are included among the 60 million?
Rochelle Davis: About 19 million of the 60 million worldwide are refugees, so 40 million are internally displaced populations. Half of those 60 million are children. The largest refugee population is Palestinians, still from 1948 and 1967. The second-largest refugee population is Syrians, followed by Afghans, then Somalis. A huge percentage of refugees and internally displaced populations are in what is called protracted displacement, which means displaced for more than five years. The average length is about 17 years.

What’s the No. 1 reason people flee their homes?
Rochelle Davis: Conflict. In 2010, nearly 11,000 people a day globally were displaced by conflict. In 2014, that number had grown to 42,500 people daily. An estimated half of Syria’s population of 22 million no longer live in their homes. Syrians (and others) fleeing to Europe are middle class, educated, and disproportionately young. Many of those left behind, in addition to those who refuse to leave their homes, are the poorest and most marginalized.

With so many displaced people worldwide, why has the global public only recently become aware of the global refugee crisis?
Susan Martin: The Syrian movements to Europe made all of this much more visible. The visibility has its downsides too, though. One of the problems with having so many large-scale new emergencies, and ones with so much visibility as the Syrian crisis, is that it’s in effect sucking the air out of all of the even-larger, more protracted crises.

What steps are being taken to alleviate the Syrian refugee crisis?
Susan Martin: Europe is really struggling with finding the correct response to the large number of asylum seekers coming into Greece and elsewhere in Europe. They have been negotiating an agreement with Turkey to accept back asylum seekers who transited Turkey to get to Europe. In exchange, Turkey would receive billions of Euros, visa free travel to Europe and new negotiations on Turkey’s accession to the EU. The EU is promising to open up resettlement of Syrian refugees in what it is calling a 1 for 1 program—the EU will resettle one Syrian refugee for each Syrian who returns to Turkey (although these will not necessarily be the same people). The plan has a lot of problems and it is not clear that it will ever be implemented.

In the meantime, Jordan and Lebanon also need financial help so that they can provide assistance to the refugees on their territories as well as help for their own populations. Lebanon has a little over 1 million—25 percent of their population—and Jordan has about 650,000. It’s amazing the amount that those countries are doing. There’s a lot of attention now on trying to open employment opportunities in Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey, and also improve access to health care and education to encourage refugees to stay.

“I look at the human experience…and how much resilience people have.”

- Rochelle Davis

What is the U.S. doing to help these countries?
Susan Martin: We’re the largest donor, and by a fairly large margin.

Professor Davis, you’ve been studying the Syrian refugee crisis. Would you talk a little about that?
Rochelle Davis: When the uprising started in Syria as part of all of the Arab uprisings, I was really interested to see the incredible outpouring of people engaging in nonviolent protest. People were marching in the streets, asking for political freedoms.

About a year into the uprising, the [Assad] regime had moved beyond just targeting individuals—they started attacking whole villages and neighborhoods. That’s when people started moving. By the end of 2012, the regime changed its tactics, and then you saw the rise of this quite militarized opposition. And so late in 2012 and into 2013, massive numbers of people started moving.

What’s the solution to Syria after five years of conflict?
Rochelle Davis: The solution is to spend a lot more of our resources on preventing conflict, or when conflict starts, solving conflict, rather than trying to help the refugees or arming the populations, which is what we do.

Tell us what it’s like to talk directly with refugees on ground.
Rochelle Davis: My work includes an ethnographic study of urban refugee populations in Jordan and Lebanon, drawing on approximately 250 interviews. Their responses reveal their resilience, ingenuity, and generosity to others. Refugees all tell stories of those—known and unknown—who assisted them.

I look at the human experience and what it means to be displaced, and how much resilience people have. It’s not just about feeding them and making sure they have housing, it’s also honoring who they are and how they’re surviving this incredible, incredible trauma.


The artwork featured in this article is by Syrian artist Diala Brisly. She fled Syria in 2013 and now lives in Beirut, where she works on a children’s magazine, Zayton and Zaytonah. The magazine is published in Aleppo; she and her colleagues take a risk by printing and distributing the magazine. By using Syrians’ own representations of their lives, they can represent themselves and their own situation, rather than being depicted by outsiders and victims, as is so often the case in photographs of the ongoing crisis. The illustration is courtesy of SFS’ Center for Contemporary Arab Studies. Georgetown Magazine is grateful to Diala Brisly for sharing her powerful art.