Women dressed in black carrying children along a dusty road
A line of Syrian refugee women cross into Jordan from Southern Syria. © UNHCR/ N.Daoud


When refugees first flee the conflict in their home country or area, they settle in places where they hope to find safety and shelter.

If that involves crossing a border, 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 often don’t have 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.

Destination countries

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.

According to the UNCHR - Global Trends 2018, the global refugee population was 25.9 million at the end of 2018, the highest level ever recorded. Over two thirds of the world’s refugees come from just five countries:

  • Syria (6,700,000)
  • Afghanistan (2,700,000)
  • South Sudan (2,300,000)
  • Myanmar (1,100,000)
  • Somalia. (949,700)

The countries hosting the greatest number of refugees in 2018 included many developing countries:

  • Turkey (3,700,000)
  • Pakistan (1,400,000)
  • Uganda (1,200,000)
  • Sudan (>1,000,000)
  • Germany (1,063,800)
  • Iran (979,400)
  • Lebanon (949,700)
  • Bangladesh (906,600)
  • Ethiopia (903,200)
  • Jordan (715,300)

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. In 2018-2019, Australia granted 18,762 humanitarian visas, made up of 9,451 Refugee category visas, 7,661 Special Humanitarian Program (SHP) visas and 1,650 Permanent Protection visas.

For more statistics on Australia’s Humanitarian Program, go to Department of Home Affairs – Humanitarian program statistics.

More information

The UNHCR provides information that shows where refugees come from (source countries) and travel to (destination countries). This can be found via the UNHCR website. UNHCR Figures at a glance.

Refugee camps

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:

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.

More information

Human Rights Watch Thailand: Ad Hoc and Inadequate 2012

Aljazeera news report Women fear violence and rape in refugee camps 2017

CNN’s news report The ‘silent crisis’ of Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh (April 19, 2017)

Real Stories Refugee Documentary Kids in Camps

Urban areas

More than half of the world's 22.5 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 in 2018 were found in:

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).

More information

For case studies on people seeking refuge in urban areas refer to UNHCR Urban refugees

Amnesty International - Jordan: Syrian refugees must not be abandoned, 2018

Watch Columbia University’s Teachers College’s Urban Refugee Education

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.

More information

Pittaway, E. & Bartolomei. L. with UNHCR Geneva (2011) Survivors Protectors Providers: Refugee Women Speak Out, Divisions of International Protection, UNHCR Geneva.

Watch the Women’s Refugee Commission clip Urban Refugees: The Right to Live in Dignity

Watch Human Rights Watch 750,000 Syrian Children out of School

Watch UNICEF’s clip The Dangerous boat ride to Greece through the eyes of a Syrian refugee girl