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As of mid-2023, there were an estimated 36.4 million refugees worldwide, mostly from Syria, Afghanistan, and Ukraine. In recent years, most refugees and asylum seekers have come from only a few countries. Just under 40% are under the age of 18.

This briefing sets out who refugees are, the risks they might face, and related UK aid and diplomatic activity.

What is a refugee and what are their rights?

The UN’s 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees defines a refugee as someone who is “unable or unwilling to return to their country of origin owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion”.

Most of the international obligations relating to refugees come from the 1951 Convention. One of its core protections is the principle of ‘non-refoulement’, which means not to expel or return refugees if this would make them unsafe.

International human rights law (PDF), which applies universally, places specific protections and obligations on states depending on the circumstances of each person.

How many refugees are there globally, and what challenges do they face?

Between 2010 and 2022, data from the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) shows that the number of forcibly displaced people, including refugees, rose from 40 million to more than 108 million.

By mid-2023, UNHCR had 30.5 million refugees under its mandate (meaning they fell under its legal obligation for protection). More than half of these people, and others in need of protection under the UN, came from Syria, Afghanistan, or Ukraine.

Iran and Turkey were the countries to host the most refugees – 3.4 million each by mid-2023. Slightly over half of all refugees and asylum seekers are male, and just under half are under the age of 18.

As highlighted by the World Health Organization, refugees, forcibly displaced people and migrants are commonly at risk of experiencing poor living, housing, and working conditions, xenophobia, trafficking, violence, and poor access to health services.

How does the UK aid budget support refugees?

Official development assistance (ODA) is aid intended to promote the economic development and welfare of developing countries and is reported under Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) rules.

There are no official statistics on the amount that countries spend on aid for refugees. However, countries do report the amount that they spend on refugees within their own borders. This is because such spending can be reported as aid under international-agreed OECD rules for the refugee’s first 12 months within the country.

Several members of the OECD’s Development Assistance Committee, including the UK, have recently been spending increasing proportions of their aid budgets on refugees within their borders. In the UK this has happened alongside wider spending pressures on the aid budget.

Looking at projects which mention the word ‘refugee’ in statistics from the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO), last updated in September 2023, show that the amount spent on refugees outside the UK has been decreasing since 2019.

However, the amount spent within the UK rose sharply in 2022 because of refugees from Afghanistan and Ukraine (see the Commons Library briefing, The UK aid budget and support for refugees in the UK in 2022/23).

The UK Government has rejected a recommendation from the Commons International Development Committee (PDF) that the Treasury ringfences the equivalent of 0.5% of gross national income in the aid budget for development assistance outside the UK, arguing it is “unaffordable”. The government has announced an additional £2.5 billion in aid for 2022 to 2024 to help reduce the effect of in-donor refugee costs.

How effective is UK aid to refugees overseas?

Ahead of the 2023 Global Refugee Forum, in May 2023 the International Development Committee reported on UK aid for refugee host countries.

It said that since the UK’s aid budget was reduced to 0.5% of gross national income, it had provided less aid to countries that host large numbers of Syrian refugees, such as Jordan and Lebanon. It cited evidence from UNHCR that host governments had “reduced confidence” that the international community would continue to provide long-term support to Syrian refugees in these countries.

The government responded to the report in August 2023 and either agreed or partially agreed to all of its recommendations.

The government said it had been the largest donor to the International Development Association (part of the World Bank Group) from 2017 to 2020 when £2.5 billion came from the UK, and in 2021 to 2022 with £3.1 billion. Some of this funding went to the World Bank’s Window for Host Communities and Refugees.

UK international development white paper

In November 2023 the UK Government published a new international development white paper (PDF) which it described as a “re-energised international development agenda”.

It includes four points on forced displacement, including increased global action and calls for refugees and displaced people to be included in national programmes, and improved access to education, particularly for girls who are refugees or displaced.

It also focuses on irregular and illegal migration, envisaging “safe, orderly and legal migration” by 2030.

The Chair of the International Development Committee, Sarah Champion, said the white paper was “highly ambitious” and “obviously directed at achieving impact for years”. However, she said that the UK is going to be “running to catch up with the impact of [its] own aid budget cuts”, because of the reduction in aid spending from 0.7% to 0.5% of gross national income

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