Aid Organization for Refugees and Asylum Seekers in Israel

The Middle East: refugees and internally displaced persons by country

photo: Activestills
Date: 5.10.10 Source: TheGuardian

The refugee and displacement problem is one of the most complex humanitarian issues facing the Middle East, aid workers say.

Elizabeth Campbell, senior advocate at the US non-governmental organisation (NGO) Refugees International, believes it is likely the Middle East hosts the highest number of refugees and asylum seekers in the world.

Underlining the need to find lasting solutions, she says: "Any time that people remain uprooted and have not been afforded basic rights or pathways to durable solutions, it is a humanitarian crisis."

IRIN takes a look at the number of refugees, asylum seekers and internally displaced persons (IDPs) in the region, and the main issues they face.


Egypt is a state party to both the 1951 UN Convention relating to the Status of Refugees and the 1969 Organisation of African Unity (now known as the African Union) Convention Governing Specific Aspects of Refugee Problems in Africa.

Egypt is both a refugee host country and a transit point for asylum seekers. It hosts refugees from 38 countries.

As of 30 August 2010, the registered population of concern to the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) was 38,962, of whom 57% were Sudanese nationals, 17% Iraqi and 17% Somali.

Some unofficial estimates put the number of refugees and asylum seekers at 500,000, according to the Africa and Middle East Refugee Assistance NGO.

UNHCR conducts all refugee status determination (RSD) procedures, registration and documentation.

Issues affecting refugees and asylum seekers include poverty, gaps in protection and dependence on the informal economy.

Sources: UNHCR, Africa and Middle East Refugee Assistance and Human Rights Watch


Iraq is not a state party to the 1951 UN Refugee Convention.

Iraqis are the second largest refugee group in the world.

As of August 2010, there were 207,639 UNHCR-documented Iraqi refugees living beyond their country's borders. The estimated number of IDPs exceeds 1.55 million.

Most Iraqi refugees (45% of the total) are living in Syria; other large communities are in Jordan and Lebanon.

As of October 2007, when Syria became the last neighbouring country to impose a stricter visa regime on Iraqis, mobility for Iraqis seeking to flee persecution in their country has become very difficult.

A growing number of refugees are returning home for lack of employment and education opportunities in neighbouring host countries.

In June 2010, UNHCR announced that 100,000 Iraqis had been referred for resettlement to third countries. Of that number, just over half had been resettled.

Religious and other minorities face a grave risk of persecution in Iraq, according to various reports. An estimated 500,000 Christians remain in Iraq out of a population of 1-1.4 million before 2003.

UNHCR estimates that of the 34,000 Palestinians in Iraq in May 2006, only 11,544 remain.

UNHCR has expressed concern over instances of the forced return of Iraqi citizens from western European countries, including those who had been residing in Sweden, Norway, Denmark and the United Kingdom.

UNHCR's guidelines for Iraq ask governments not to forcibly return people originating from the governorates of Baghdad, Diyala, Kirkuk, Ninewa and Salah Al-din, in view of the serious human rights violations and continuing security incidents in these areas. UNHCR's position is that Iraqi asylum applicants originating from these five governorates should benefit from international protection as per the 1951 Refugee Convention or an alternative form of protection.

UNHCR recorded 426,090 Iraqi refugee and IDP returnees in 2008 and 2009. However, only 15% of these were refugees. The estimated 1.5 million IDPs in Iraq include 500,000 in settlements or camp-like situations in extremely poor conditions who are considered a priority for protection and emergency assistance.

Sources: UNHCR, Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre and Brookings Institution


Israel is a state party to the 1951 UN Refugee Convention.

The total number of displaced Palestinians worldwide is 7.1 million, including 6.6 million refugees and 427,000 IDPs.

Most Palestinian refugees live in the Middle East, mainly in the occupied Palestinian territory (oPt), Jordan, Lebanon and Syria.

In 1949, the UN established the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), which operates in oPt, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon. A further 340,016 Palestinians are registered with UNHCR.

A total of 1,310 refugees and 1,062 asylum seekers from Israel are registered with UNHCR.

Meanwhile, asylum seekers and refugees, mainly from Sudan and Eritrea, have in recent years attempted to illegally cross the border from Egypt into Israel, risking their lives: Between 1 January and 31 March 2010, 12 people lost their lives attempting to cross into Israel.

Sources: UNHCR, BADIL, UNRWA and Human Rights Watch


Jordan is not a signatory to the 1951 UN Refugee Convention.

Around 1.9 million Palestinians are registered with UNRWA. Unlike any other host country, Jordan granted all Palestinian refugees full citizenship rights, except for the 120,000 Palestinians who originally came from the Gaza Strip.

As of the end of July 2010, there were 32,599 registered persons of concern, 90% (30,700) of whom are Iraqis registered with UNHCR, along with 1,899 refugees and asylum seekers from other countries, mainly Sudan and Somalia.

More than 90% of the refugees have access to primary education.

Up until May 2008, Iraqis fleeing persecution could enter Jordan with relatively little difficulty. However, the Jordanian authorities considered them "guests" and not refugees, and they were therefore unable to seek work without risking fines, detention and even deportation. Entry rules have been tightened: all Iraqis are required to have a visa prior to entering Jordan.

In 1998, the Jordanian government and UNHCR signed a memorandum of understanding, according to which asylum seekers may remain in Jordan pending refugee status determination by UNHCR. However, resettlement is currently the only durable option for Iraqis as few opportunities for local integration exist. Return to much of Iraq is not currently advised by UNHCR.

Key issues affecting refugees in Jordan include poverty and marginalization.

Sources: UNHCR and UNRWA


Lebanon is not a signatory to the 1951 UN Refugee Convention.

Around 425,000 Palestinian refugees are registered with UNRWA, while around 3,000 are not registered and have no identity documents. About 53% of registered refugees live in 12 official refugee camps across the country, while the rest live in cities, towns and informal refugee camps.

Living conditions for most refugees - Palestinian or otherwise - are precarious. Palestinian refugees are barred from public sector jobs, though in August 2010, after decades of campaigning, a law was passed in Lebanon's parliament allowing them to request work permits for private sector employment.

According to UNHCR, a total of 7,878 Iraqis were registered with UNHCR, in addition to 1,936 refugees and asylum seekers of other nationalities, at the end of August 2010.

Because Lebanon is not a state party to the 1951 Geneva Convention relating to the Status of Refugees or to its 1967 Protocol, it also does not have legislation or administrative practices in place to address the specific needs of refugees and asylum seekers.

As a result, refugees who enter the country without prior authorisation or who overstay their visa are considered to be illegal and are at risk of being fined, detained for considerable lengths of time, and deported. Without permission to stay until a durable solution is found, they live in hardship. Many are extremely destitute and worry about meeting their own and their children's very basic need for food and shelter. A growing number have run out of resources.

UNHCR remains in regular contact with the Lebanese authorities to discuss the circumstances of persons detained and advocate their release. Recent months have seen an improvement in the detention situation, but there is still some way to go to ensure that refugees are not detained for a prolonged period of time simply because they have come to Lebanon to seek international protection. UNHCR is hopeful that the new decree and other reforms will rectify the situation.

Sources: Al-Shabaka Palestinian Policy Network, BADIL, UNHCR and UNRWA


Syria is not a signatory to the 1951 UN Refugee Convention.

Around 427,000 Palestinian refugees are registered with UNRWA. They enjoy the same rights as Syrian citizens, barring citizenship rights.

As of the end of July 2010, there were 151,907 Iraqi refugees registered with UNHCR in Syria, as well as 4,317 non-Iraqi refugees and 1,156 non-Iraqi asylum-seekers.

According to UNHCR's 1997 report entitled The State of The World's Refugees, up to 200,000 Kurds in Syria became stateless as a result of a 1962 census which withdrew Syrian citizenship from people who had allegedly entered the country illegally from Turkey.

Most refugees are Iraqis. Others are mainly from Afghanistan, Iran, Somalia and Sudan.

Stricter visa requirements for Iraqis were introduced at the end of 2007, whereas entry up until that point had been relatively easy.

According to UNHCR, local integration is not an option in Syria. This is because of the lack of livelihood opportunities in a country whose economy is already under strain.

The Syrian government estimated in 2007 that there were over 430,000 IDPs in the country, including the descendants of those originally forced to flee from the Golan Heights during the 1967 six-day war, says the Norwegian Refugee Council's Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre.

The drought in northeastern Syria in recent years has forced 250,000-300,000 families (at least 1.25-1.5 million people) to leave their villages. Most moved to Damascus and other cities like Aleppo and Daa'ra.



Yemen is a signatory to the 1951 UN Refugee Convention.

UNHCR describes the challenges Yemen faces as unique, given its location on a historical migration route between the Horn of Africa and the oil-rich Arabian Gulf. Mixed migration brings in both refugees fleeing persecution and economic migrants fleeing poverty, often via dangerous people-smuggling networks.

As of August 2010, 95% of the 236,443 registered refugees in Yemen were Somalis granted prima facie recognition by the Yemeni government.

Iraqis, Ethiopians and Eritreans have also sought refuge in Yemen. There are 304,469 registered IDPs in Yemen. UNHCR's access to the Sa'ada governorate, where intermittent clashes have been going on between government forces and Houthi rebels since 2004, is difficult.

Yemen is one of the region's poorest countries, and faces threats of insurgency and conflict. Since 21 September there have been reports of clashes between the army and al-Qaida in the south-eastern province of Shabwa, leading to further displacements.

Sources: UNHCR, Yemen Post