When refugees first flee the conflict in their home country or area, they settle in places where they hope to find safety and shelter.
The first country that a person arrives at and attempts to find safety in after leaving their home country is called the country of first asylum. The majority of the world’s refugees live in a country that borders their own. People usually seek refuge in either refugee camps or in urban areas.
When people arrive in a new country after fleeing from conflict, they are often without passports and other official documentation. It can be difficult to find safety and shelter, particularly if they don’t speak the local language.
People often live for many years in countries of asylum. Many are forced to move between countries in search of refuge. Some live in ‘protracted refugee situations’, meaning that refugees live in exile outside their home countries for five years or more without a long-term protection solution in sight.
People travel to many different countries in the search for refuge. Australia is one of many countries in the world that hosts people seeking refuge.
In recent years the countries that recorded the highest number of people seeking refuge have been:
- The Islamic Republic of Iran
Destination countries can change quickly. For example, Syria was once a place of refuge for people seeking asylum, and now it is a place that people flee from.
Australia receives considerably fewer people who are seeking asylum than the countries listed above. Refer to the annual UNHCR Global Trends report for specific details.
The UNHCR provides information that shows where refugee people come from (source countries) and travel to (destination countries). This can be found via the UNHCR website. UNHCR Home » Resources » Statistics & Operational Data.
- Global Trends 2011
- Global Trends 2012, Displacement: The New 21st Century Challenge
- Asylum Levels and Trends in Industrialised Countries 2012 [PDF]
Some people find shelter in a refugee camp. A refugee camp is an area established specifically for people seeking asylum; often it is outside the border areas of one country and inside a neighbouring country.
In some countries the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has worked with local governments to establish UNHCR ‘camps’. These are places where refugees who have fled persecution in their home countries may seek asylum and refuge.
Examples of refugee camps are:
- Kakuma and Dadaab (Kenya)
- Kutupalong and Nayapara camps, Cox’s Bazaar, Bangladesh
Watch the UNHCR clip Bangladesh: Rohingya Refugees, 2013
- Mae La camp and Umpium camp, Thailand
What is life like in a refugee camp?
Refugee camps are often found close to the borders of neighbouring countries. Although camps are designed to offer protection and refuge, people living in camps often continue to remain at risk and in danger. Camps can also be very overcrowded.
Refugees living in camps often report that:
- people live in a constant state of insecurity and fear
- shelter, food, water and medical supplies are limited, and sometimes non-existent
- physical violence and abuse (including sexual violence) are widespread
- children have limited access to education; they can be exposed to exploitation, violence and kidnapping; many are orphaned.
Human Rights Watch Thailand: Ad Hoc and Inadequate 2012
UNHCR Google earth map (camps)
More than half of the world's 10.5 million refugee people live in or on the fringes of urban areas.
When people arrive in a country of first asylum there are not always refugee camps available. In some cases people are unable to access refugee camps even if they are available. Lack of access could be due to physical barriers such as mountains and rivers, lack of transport, or fear of further danger.
When no camps are accessible, people are forced to try and seek refuge in urban areas. Here they set up makeshift homes, often living beside railway tracks, on riverbanks or in the poorer districts of cities, towns and villages.
Some of the biggest urban refugee populations are found in:
- New Delhi
What happens when asylum seekers are unable to access legal protection?
In countries where there is no means to formally register and/or apply for refugee status protection, people are considered (by that government) to be living illegally. This leaves many people without legal protection, without access to work, food, adequate shelter or medical care.
When this happens people can be vulnerable to abuse, exploitation, detention and arrest. They can be forced to return to their home country. People seeking refuge in urban areas often report:
- regular discrimination and harassment
- lack of affordability of shelter (housing) and food (in some cases families have a subsistence allowance)
- exploitation of labour (including sexual exploitation), particularly children
- sexual and gender based violence and harassment
- limited or no access to education and/ or medical care (some is provided through the UNHCR and NGOs).
For case studies on people seeking refuge in urban areas refer to UNHCR Urban refugees
Read a Human Rights Watch report on Thailand's treatment of asylum seekers and refugees:
Thailand Ad Hoc and Inadequate 2012
Watch UNHCR Urban refugees from Syria 2013
Watch UNHCR Urban refugees in Jordan 2013
Women and children
Women and children are often at risk groups in countries of asylum. They can be targeted for violence and abuse and find it difficult to access critical resources such as food, shelter and water. Sexual violence is endemic within many refugee camps and urban areas.
Smugglers, border guards, and members of armed groups have all been known to abuse refugee women and children who are in search of safety. In some cases, the perpetrators of sexual violence are those from whom they expect protection: police, military guards, camp administrators and other refugees.
Refugee adolescents, especially girls, are primary targets of violence. Many are also forced to assume responsibilities for younger siblings and other members of the household.
Many women and girls face considerable shame and stigma because of this violence. Some become pregnant and bear children as a result. Despite the efforts of UNHCR and other organisations, there is little protection within refugee camps.
Pittaway, E. & Bartolomei. L. with UNHCR Geneva (2011) Survivors Protectors Providers: Refugee Women Speak Out, Divisions of International Protection, UNHCR Geneva.