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Forced to leave everything behind: Where do refugees come from, and where do they go?

From Afghanistan to Myanmar, Syria to Ukraine, Venezuela to South Sudan, more than 84 million people around the world are currently displaced from their homes. 

Many of these refugees have had to leave their country of origin altogether, forced out by violence, food insecurity, natural disaster, and/or political persecution.

No matter what their country of origin, every refugee faces similar concerns:

  • Will my loved ones and I have a safe place to stay?
  • Will we ever be able to return home?
  • How can we rebuild our lives in the meantime?
With a Kiva loan, Leoniya was able to open a small shop, keep her children in school, and start building a happier future

Refugees often remain in limbo for years, even decades. The host countries that take them in often have no option but to direct them to overcrowded camps and impoverished urban centers that lack permanent housing, clean water, and other infrastructure. Businesses are lost, education is interrupted, and health deteriorates. 

In spite of difficult circumstances and formidable challenges, many refugees are able to rebuild their lives far away from their home country. While immediate aid can help to stabilize their situation while they are fleeing, they must also find long-term solutions that help them start new lives in a foreign place.  

Since 2016, lenders on Kiva have lent over USD$25.65 million to more than 28,000 refugees in over a dozen countries.

How many refugees are there in the world today?

According to the United Nations refugee agency UNHCR, there are 84 million displaced people currently living around the globe. Included in this statistic are three categories of displaced people:

  • Refugees have crossed an international border and cannot return to their country of origin for fear for their lives. Refugees make up 26.6 million of the total population of displaced people. 
  • Asylum seekers have fled and are awaiting to be assigned refugee status at the border of another country. There are approximately 4.4 million asylum seekers around the world.
  • Internally displaced people or IDPs have left their homes for the same reasons as refugees and asylum seekers but remain in their countries of origin. IDPs make up the majority of displaced people by far, with 26.6 million seeking refuge in their home countries.

Almost half of the total number of displaced people—approximately 35 million—are children under the age of 18. Over one million were born in refugee camps, and many grow up with little or no education. Some may become separated from their families, putting them at risk for neglect, abuse, and human trafficking. The UNHCR and other agencies work to reunite refugee families and support these children. 

Where do refugees come from? Refugees by country of origin

Civil war, famine, violent persecution, and natural disasters are all reasons that drive people to leave their homes and livelihoods in search of safety and stability.  

Syria has been the main country of origin for refugees since 2014. As of mid-2021, 68 percent of refugees came from only five countries, all of which continue to experience significant political and/or economic unrest: 

  • Syria: 6.8 million
  • Venezuela: 4.1 million
  • Afghanistan: 2.6 million
  • South Sudan: 2.2 million
  • Myanmar: 1.1 million

However, since February 2022, the invasion of Ukraine has readjusted these numbers. According to the UNHCR numbers in May 2022, almost 6 million refugees have fled across the border to neighboring countries, making it one of the largest displacements in human history. 

Jacqueline was forced to flee Burundi. Now she runs a successful soap business in Rwanda & sends her children to school.

Related: Burundian refugee Jacqueline rebuilt her life with a soap business

Where do refugees go? Top refugee-hosting countries

Most refugees and asylum seekers—73 percent—flee to neighboring countries. Few of these countries are wealthy with extra resources; in fact, some of the world’s top refugee hosting countries are considered “developing” countries, which have economic issues of their own and lower-than-average standards of living. 

In spite of the responsibility and cost, 85 percent of the world’s refugees are hosted by developing countries. As of mid-2021, the top refugee hosting countries include:

  • Turkey: 3.7 million
  • Colombia: 1.7 million
  • Uganda: 1.5 million
  • Pakistan: 1.4 million
  • Germany: 1.2 million

The refugee situation caused by the invasion of Ukraine continues to affect these statistics. According to the UNHCR in May 2022, Poland, which shares a border with Ukraine, has taken in 3.1 million refugees, and Romania, another neighboring country, is hosting 836,173. 

Read more: Growing a business and caring for a family from a refugee camp

Rebuilding financial security as a refugee

When refugees are forced to flee their homes, careers, and communities, they also leave behind their financial security.

With limited access to bank accounts, credit histories, or even permanent addresses, refugees face significant obstacles when seeking financial services. Most traditional banks are wary of lending to refugees, seeing their transient status as too high-risk. Such barriers keep refugees from accessing economic tools, and many refugees are excluded from the opportunity to create financial independence and economic stability.

That’s where Kiva comes in. Our mission is to open financial opportunities to all, including refugees.

Access to credit and other microfinance tools can help refugees reestablish economic footing—and ultimately a financial foundation—beyond the crisis.

Financial access is essential for building long-term stability. Resources like loans, savings accounts, and financial transfers can help displaced people rebuild their lives in a new country by jump-starting a new business or funding their children’s education.

Kiva aims to make this possible with the help of lenders who are looking for a way to make a lasting impact on the global refugee crisis. 

Lend to refugees around the world

How Kiva helps the world’s refugees rebuild 

As a refugee from the DRC, Leoniya worked hard to rebuild her life in Uganda

“The financing from Kiva gave us the initial push to take the risk and start lending to refugees.”

Since 2016, lenders on Kiva have lent over USD$25.65 million to more than 28,000 refugees in over a dozen countries, effectively changing the conversation about refugee lending. We believe that refugees can pay back loans reliably—and they do: The repayment rate for refugee loans is the same as the rate as our other borrowers at 95.5 percent. 

Kiva loans have helped refugees like Saffa, who started two businesses in Turkey after she and her family were displaced by the Syrian war. 

As a refugee from the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Leoniya worked hard to rebuild her life. With a Kiva loan, she was able to open a small shop, keep her children in school, and start building a happier future.

Palestinian refugee Malik started a cafe with a Kiva loan, enabling him to go back to school and finish his university degree. 

Read more: Saffa fled Syria for a better life. A microloan helped her start over.

Through our lending to refugees and the high repayment rates we’ve seen, Kiva is helping to change the perspectives of other financial institutions, with a goal of opening up much more funding to refugees. 

As one of Kiva’s local lending partners said, “The financing from Kiva gave us the initial push to take the risk and start lending to refugees. We couldn’t have seen this expansion without Kiva.” 

Through Kiva Capital we aim to scale accessible financial solutions by linking socially-conscious investors with partners who are having a positive impact on vulnerable communities. Kiva Capital oversaw the 2021 launch of The Kiva Refugee Investment Fund that raised US$32.5M and is currently scaling access to microfinance in the Middle East, Africa, and Latin America.

Financial inclusion is essential for rebuilding lives

With more people displaced every day, the world needs solutions beyond the shocking headlines. At Kiva, we support refugee lending because we believe that opening up financial opportunities leads to long-term stability. No matter where they come from, everyone has the right to financial access.

You can help: Make a loan to a refugee or internally displaced person today.

About the author

Jessica Leigh Lebos

Jessica Leigh Lebos is Kiva's Senior Storyteller and an award-winning writer based in Savannah, Georgia, USA. Covering social justice, cultural equity, sustainable growth, financial literacy, and always celebrating others' success, she is thrilled to help share Kiva's mission—and the stories of the people it connects.