Displacement in the Muslim World

Hady Amr and
Hady Amr, Nonresident Senior Fellow, Foreign Policy, The Brookings Institution
Hady Amr Former Brookings Expert
Elizabeth Ferris
Elizabeth Ferris
Elizabeth Ferris Former Brookings Expert, Research Professor, Institute for the Study of International Migration - Georgetown University

February 16, 2009

Throughout the Muslim world, millions of people have been forced to flee their homes and communities for many reasons: civil wars, interstate conflicts, U.S.-led military campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan, tsunamis, earthquakes, and a multitude of other disasters. Many have crossed national borders and live in nearby countries as refugees. Many more remain within the borders of their country as internally displaced persons (IDPs). Some are displaced only temporarily and are able to return to their communities when conflicts are resolved or flood waters have receded, but most live many years as refugees or IDPs. For some, displacement has lasted for generations. The statistics are detailed in the appendix to this paper.

This massive dislocation of people affects both na­tional development plans and individual human development. It impacts national security and personal security. It affects relationships between neighboring countries, UN Security Council discussions, and peace processes. In short, understanding—and resolving—displacement is central to development, peace, and security.

A widespread phenomenon

Sudan stands out as the country with the highest number of displaced people—over half a million refugees and a staggering six million IDPs. Sudanese have fled multiple civil wars and the devastating effects of climate change including floods, droughts, and famine. In the western region of Darfur alone, two million people are internally displaced by the conflict and most are highly dependent on external humanitarian assistance for survival.

One of the world’s largest and most protracted displacements is that of the Palestinians. Beginning in 1948, the flight of Palestinians from their towns and villages—either by force or out of fear—led to the establishment of refugee camps throughout the region. It also spurred the creation of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, UNRWA, an agency which, to this day, provides relief and development assistance to over 4.6 million displaced Palestinians in Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, the West Bank, and the Gaza Strip.[1] The issue of Palestinian refugees has been central to peace negotiations for decades—an issue which remains unresolved.

Most recently, the displacement of Iraqis—both in­ternally and across Iraq’s borders—has dramatically impacted the Muslim world. While Iraqis were subjected to mass attacks and displacements under the regime of Saddam Hussein, the ethno-sectarian violence and general insecurity which flourished under the U.S. occupation has led to unprecedent­ed numbers of Iraqi families fleeing their homes and sometimes the country. Today, roughly two million Iraqis are refugees and another 2.8 million are IDPs.

South Asia has also been particularly affected by large-scale displacement. In terms of refugees under UNHCR’s mandate (i.e. other than Palestinians), Afghanistan was the leading country of origin at the end of 2007 with 3.1 million refugees hosted mainly by Pakistan and Iran.[2]

An additional 200,000 Afghans are displaced inside the country; many have been displaced multiple times and are unable to return to their communities due to the lack of security. It should be noted that the combined number of Iraqi and Afghan refugees in 2007 account for nearly half of UNHCR’s global refugee population.

In addition, there are a considerable number of IDPs throughout the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) states as well. Aside from Sudan and Iraq, which host a combined 8.8 million IDPs, countries like Turkey, Uganda, and Somalia each have close to 1 million IDPs, while Azerbaijan, Bangladesh, and Côte d’Ivoire are home to over half a million. Many communities throughout the Muslim world are hosting large refugee populations as well. The top three refugee-hosting countries in the world at the end of 2007 were all OIC members: Pakistan, Syria, and Iran.[3] All told, there are nine to ten million refugees in the Muslim world, and at least 14 million internally displaced. This means that one in 140 people living in the Muslim world is a refugee and one in 100 is internally displaced. If this was the case in the United States, there would be two million refugees and three million American internally displaced persons.

Displacement, security and hospitality

The forced movement of these millions of people is critical to issues of security and development in the regions in question and the Muslim world as a whole. Firstly, refugees, IDPs, and host communities face enormous challenges in terms of meeting humanitarian and development assistance needs. In many situations, displaced persons cannot access education, health care, or the job market, with major implications for the individuals and families concerned, but also for broader development initiatives.

For refugees, one’s livelihood is intimately tied to legal status. While 37 of 60 countries in the Muslim world, particularly in Africa, are parties to the 1951 Convention and/or 1967 protocol, there are significant gaps elsewhere in the Muslim world. States which are not parties to the convention include Bahrain, Bangladesh, Brunei-Darussalam, Comoros, Eritrea, Guyana, Indonesia, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Libya, Malaysia, Maldives, Oman, Pakistan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Syria, the UAE, and Uzbekistan. It should be noted, however, that many of these countries, such as Pakistan, Jordan, and Syria, have quite large refugee populations, particularly from Palestine and Iraq, and have been very generous in allowing refugees to stay, albeit without the status of refugees.

In addition to signing the 1951 Convention, several states, including Iraq, Turkey, and Uganda, have incorporated the Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement into national laws or policies. Of course, despite recognition of these frameworks, there are often discrepancies in terms of how refugee and IDP rights are upheld on the ground.

While the Convention, Protocol, and Guiding Principles provide a framework of protection for displaced people, Islam—as interpreted by various scholars—could also offer a potential framework and innovative solutions for displaced persons. For example, the right to asylum is thought by many to be recognized in Islam. The faith promotes humanitarian principles and views the granting of asylum as a duty of political leaders within the Muslim community.[4]

Within the Muslim world, there is a “wealth gap” in responding to refugees. In many cases, it is the low- and middle-income countries—like Jordan and Syria—that have accepted the most refugees and provided them with the greatest legal rights, while the number of refugees admitted to some of the OIC’s wealthiest states does not even register on global surveys, and their legal status tends to be dubious at best.

Since 2001, refugees and IDPs in the Muslim world have been seen by the U.S. and others through the lens of the Global War on Terror. Moreover, two of the Muslim world’s largest current humanitarian crises are to a large extent the result of the US-led wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Human Development and Security

Today, in the face of rising food prices and the global financial crisis, the situation of refugees and IDPs is becoming more desperate. Increased short-term humanitarian assistance is needed. But even more urgent is the need to focus on finding durable solutions for those displaced by violence and disasters. The protracted displacement of Palestinians, Sudanese, and Afghans cries out for international response and a development of new and innovative solutions.

The remainder of this report will be composed of two chapters. The first on refugees from Iraq. The second on refugees from Afghanistan.


[1] See UNRWA’s official homepage:

[2] UNHCR, 2007 Global Trends: Refugees, Asylum-seekers, Returnees, Internally Displaced and Stateless Persons (June 2008), p. 8. (This is based on the total number of externally displaced Afghans, some of whom are not formally identified or registered as refugees).

[3] UNHCR, 2007 Global Trends: Refugees, Asylum-seekers, Returnees, Internally Displaced and Stateless Persons (June 2008), p. 8.

[4] Elizabeth G. Ferris, Beyond Borders: Refugees, Migrants and Human Rights in the Post-Cold War Era. Geneva: World Council of Churches, 1993, p. xxxiv-xxxv. For more on Islamic perspectives on displacement and asylum, see Refugee Survey Quarterly vol. 27, no. 2 (2008) “Islam and Asylum”.