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Center for Human Rights and International Justice

Migration-related Information and Resources

center for human rights and international justice

Children in a camp for internally displaced persons located in the Central African Republic
Children in a camp for internally displaced persons located in the Central African Republic


The Center for Human Rights and International Justice at Boston College addresses the increasingly interdisciplinary needs of human rights work. Issues of migration and refugees are of great concern to the Center and the Center’s affiliated scholars. 

» See current migration-related projects sponsored by the Center


This section of the Center’s website accumulates resources regarding current trends in international migration and refugees while also providing relevant information for those that wish to further their involvement in the international plight of displaced persons everywhere. Use the menu below to jump to a specific section.

Refugees in Thailand awaiting transport to the United States, Italy and France in 1979.
Refugees in Thailand awaiting transport to the United States, Italy and France in 1979.



Under the 1951 Refugee Convention, a refugee is anyone who is forced to flee his or her country due to persecution, war or violence. Furthermore, a refugee may be forced to flee due “to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality, and is unable to, or owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself to the protection of that country.”


According to the UNHCR Global Trends 2014 Report:

  • Refugee women and girls accounted for 49.6% of the refugee population in 2014.
  • Children below the age of 18 compromised 51% of the refugee population in 2014.
  • As of the end of 2014, Turkey, Pakistan, Lebanon, the Islamic Republic of Iran, Ethiopia, and Jordan were the states that hosted the largest number of refugees.
  • In 2014, developing nations were home to over 86% of the world’s refugees, an increase from 70% ten years before. The least developed countries hosted 3.6 million refugees, 25% of the global total.
  • As of 2014, 53% of all refugees worldwide came from three countries; The Syrian Arab Republic (3.88 million), Afghanistan (2.59 million), and Somalia (1.1 million).


Refugees require social, financial, and health support from host countries. Most countries set quotas for the number of refugees that they are willing to admit into their country. According to the 1951 UN Refugee Convention, international law states that refugees may not be forced to return to the countries from which they have fled. However, fearing the drain on national resources, or perceived threats to national security and political destabilization that refugees may bring with them, countries may take active measures to dissuade individuals from seeking asylum within their borders. In 2014, Australia released a video campaign in an attempt to deter individuals from seeking asylum by boat, saying that such people will be returned to their countries of origin regardless of the reason for their entry into the country.

What is the U.S. doing to help refugees?

The United States accepts a limited number of refugees to enter the country per year. The President works in consultation with Congress to determine the yearly quota for refugee admission, broken down into numerical quotas for each region of the world. Following 9/11, the number of refugees admitted into the United States decreased dramatically but has recently been on the upward trend, with President Obama authorizing the admittance of 70,000 refugees for the 2014 fiscal year. Many of the arrivals in 2014 are expected to be from Iraq, Burma, and Bhutan.

“While we work to promote lasting peace and stability and human rights around the world, so that these refugees may one day return to their countries in safety and dignity, we know that for some voluntary return may not be possible. For these refugees social, economic, and legal integration in their country of asylum not only provides opportunities for them to begin rebuilding their lives, but also for the contribution of their knowledge, talents, and skills to be fully realized. Americans know the benefits of these valuable contributions firsthand. Since 1975, we have welcomed more than 3 million refugees from all over the world and continue to lead the world in refugee resettlement. Together with the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and the international community, we are committed to protecting the world’s refugees, mitigating their suffering, and working to help find ways for them to live in dignity and peace”

—President Barack Obama (June 20, 2012)


As of 2014, individuals are accepted for entry into the United States based on the priority level that is assigned to them. As explained by the Congressional Research Service, individuals granted a priority one status for admittance are those who are facing compelling security and protection needs. Priority two cases pertain to people belonging to groups of special humanitarian concern to the United States. Finally, priority three cases are classified as cases involving family reunification in which close relatives seek to reunite with their family members who have already been granted status as refugees or asylees.

The United States provides resettlement services to newly arrived refugees. During the first 90 days of resettlement, local agencies work in collaboration with the federal government to provide food, housing, employment, medical care, counseling and other services to help refugees reach economic self-sufficiency.

» More information and personal stories about refugees





Migrants, according to the UN, are those who choose to leave their home nation to improve the future prospects of themselves and their families. Whereas refugees are compelled to leave their home nations, migrants move voluntarily without the fear of prosecution, particularly for economic reasons.



Darfur Refugees
Darfur refugees.

Internally Displaced Persons

Internally displaced persons or IDPs, are those persons who have not crossed an international border to find safety, but have moved inside their own home countries. Many IDPs flee their homes for similar reasons to refugees, often citing war, violence and persecution as factors that prompted their displacement. IDPs legally remain under the protection of their home government even if they fled due to government persecution. The original mandate of the UNHCR did not address the needs of IDPs; however, as the agency developed, the UNHCR added capacity to address the needs of IDPs, leading many other organizations and states to follow suit. It is estimated that by the end of 2014, there were over 38.2 million internally displaced persons worldwide.



Urban Refugees

An urban refugee refers to a person who, for economic or political reasons, settles in an urban area of a country rather than a traditional camp-based settlement. The term “urban refugee” is not recognized under the 1951 Convention but many international organizations that work with refugees and displaced persons have adapted their policies and programs to fit the needs of this new type of migrant. The urban refugee population faces specific protective needs relevant to urban environments. Because they are “invisible” and keep a low profile, they often do not receive sufficient assistance. They lack access to crucial services, health, and education and are often confronted with xenophobic attitudes in their country of asylum. Today, more than half the world’s refugees live in urban areas. International organizations such as the UNHCR and JRS believe this percentage will continue to grow due to global urbanization. According to a UNHCR report in 2009, over 5.5 million people were considered urban refugees.



Laotian refugee family in Nan Province, Thailand.
Laotian refugee family in Nan Province, Thailand.




Statelessness refers to the condition of an individual who does hold nationality or citizenship to any state. It is estimated that roughly 12 million individuals are stateless, although this number is difficult to measure and often underreported. According to the UNHCR, statelessness occurs for a variety of reasons including discrimination against minorities, failure to include all residents in the body of citizens when a state becomes independent, and conflicts of laws between states. As of 2012, Pakistan had the highest proportion of stateless persons with over 1.6 millions stateless persons.

Statelessness is problematic because the possession of nationality is essential for full participation in society and a prerequisite for the enjoyment of the full range of human rights. On a social level, citizenship provides individuals with a crucial source of a sense of belonging and forms the basis for an identity. Legally, citizenship is required for one to obtain and exercise basic human rights such as access to schools, medical care, ownership of property, and various degrees of legal protection.

In this short narrative, Mikhail Sebastian recounts his experience as a stateless man who has been living in the United States for 16 years. He describes his statelessness as a condition that threatens to dehumanize him. In the video, Sebastian details the legal and social path that led him to become stateless, as well as the challenges that face him as a stateless man in the United States.

The UNHCR and other organizations seek to address statelessness and issues that arise from statelessness by working with governments to prevent statelessness from occurring, to resolve cases that do occur, and to protect the rights of stateless persons. With this work, there has been some progress made in regards to statelessness. With increased efforts being made in 2014 to assist individuals in the acquisition or confirmation of their nationalities, 37,100 individuals successfully acquired citizenship in a country.

In 2014, the UNHCR introduced their Global Action Plan to End Statelessness: 2014-2024, a comprehensive 10-step plan with milestone goals for 2017 and 2020, which hopes to spur greater action to solve the problem of statelessness. With its focus on issues like discriminatory practices in nationality laws, loss of nationality as a punitive action, and bureaucratic solutions like more comprehensive birth registration, the UNHCR plan simultaneously recognizes the complexity of the issue, while also providing approaches that address the problem from a variety of perspectives.


Melbourne refugee and asylum rights rally on July 23, 2013.
Melbourne refugee and asylum rights rally on July 23, 2013.


An asylum-seeker is an individual who has submitted a claim for refugee status but whose request has not yet been determined. Nearly 1.7 applications were submitted in 2014, an increase of around 50% since 2013. According to the UNHCR’s trend report in 2014, the main destination countries for asylum seekers were the Russian Federation, Germany, and the United. 

2014 saw a substantial spike in the total number of asylum-seekers worldwide, increasing to 1.8 million from 2013's total of 1.2 million. Much of this growth can be attributed to the outbreak of conflict in eastern Ukraine, with Ukranians registering nearly 290,000 applications for asylum, primarily to the Russian Federation. Russia's registration of more than 270,000 asylum claims marks the largest total number received by any nation in years, with the most recent comparable total registered by South Africa in 2009 (222,000). In addition, Syrians submitted more than 170,000 asylum applications to 109 countries, and Iraqis resgistered an additional 100,000 applications.

The UNHCR is working with international organizations to address the increasing number of unaccompanied or separated children seeking asylum. The UNHCR’s trend report in 2014 highlighted Afghanistan, Eritrea, Syria, and Somalia as major sources of unaccompanied or separated children.Unaccompanied children who wish to seek asylum face legal and social challenges upon their arrival in the United States. The U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants documents the personal experiences of several of these children. For more stories, consider watching the movie Which Way Home, a documentary following the journey of several unaccompanied child migrants as they attempt to enter into the United States.



Mixed status families

Mixed status families are those in which family members possess different legal statuses. In 2011, Pew Research Center estimated that at least nine million people were in ‘mixed-status’ families that included at least one unauthorized adult and one U.S. born child. This is consistent with 2008 findings that 73% of children with at least one undocumented parent were U.S. citizens by birth. Furthermore, one U.S. Department of Homeland Security report stated that 46,486 immigrants who were deported between January 1, 2011 and June 30, 2011 stated that they were the parent of at least one child who possessed U.S. citizenship by birth.

Activists seek to draw awareness about the way in which the fate of many undocumented immigrants will greatly affect and pose challenges to their U.S. born children. One such story is detailed in an article written about Pilar Molina and her husband, who is in county jail facing deportation. The report highlights the emotional and financial drain that is placed on mixed status families, as her children “ask about their father every day.”

For more information regarding the experiences of mixed status families, consider watching the PBS film Sin País about a family torn apart by deportation.



A protest to stop the separation of families through deportation
A protest to stop the separation of families through deportation


Deportees and deportation refers to the expulsion of foreign nationals from the country. All non-citizens of the United States can be deported, including permanent residents and those with refugee status. Under the Obama administration, nearly 2 million people have been deported from the United States back to their country of origin, with an average of about 400,000 deportations per year.

The Center for Human Rights and International Justice at Boston College is privileged to be home to the Post Deportation Human Rights Project (PDHRP), which offers a novel and multi-tiered approach to the problem of harsh and unlawful deportations from the United States. It is the first and only legal advocacy project in the country to systematically undertake the representation of individuals who have been deported from the United States. In May of 2014, the PDHRP hosted an international conference that led to the drafting of the Declaration on the Rights of Expelled and Deported Persons.

» Information regarding the PDHRP, its projects, and its services.




The UNHCR states that the three durable solutions to refugee crises are voluntary repatriation, local integration, and third country resettlement. Voluntary repatriation occurs when refugees choose to return to their home countries following the conclusion of conflict in the region, granted that they obtain assurances of safety, dignity, and resources for reintegration. Unfortunately UNHCR reported that in 2014, only126,800 refugees returned to their countries of origin, representing the lowest level of returns in more than 30 years. The second option of local integration requires refugees to integrate into their country of asylum by becoming citizens. However, this is often met with hesitance by countries hosting refugees due to a fear of resource scarcity. Individuals for whom the first two options are not available may be eligible for resettlement into a third country if they are deemed to be at risk for marginalization or are particularly vulnerable.

Governments, NGOs and nonprofit agencies who hold interests in decreasing the number of refugees worldwide are increasingly calling on more preventative measures to address the refugee crisis. These measures often focus on diminishing the root causes of displacement, most notably violence and conflict.

  • As of 2014, much of the increase in global trends of forced displacement is attributed to the war in Syria, which resulted in 2.5 million new refugees and 6.5 million people internally displaced.


"We are seeing here the immense costs of not ending wars, of failing to resolve or prevent conflict. Peace is today dangerously in deficit. Humanitarians can help as a palliative, but political solutions are vitally needed. Without this, the alarming levels of conflict and the mass suffering that is reflected in these figures will continue."

– António Guterres, UN High Commissioner for Refugees, 2014




Somali refugee children in Dolla Ado, Ethiopia.
Somali refugee children in Dolla Ado, Ethiopia.



Additional Resources and Suggested Reading:

The Center for Human Rights and International Justice is privileged to have access to leading scholars and publications on issues of migration, refugees and forced migration. The following articles and published books provide better insight into these complex issues:

  1. David Hollenbach, S.J., The Hard Lessons of Kakuma: The Suffering of Refugees Should Raise New Question about the Use of Military Force. America 13-15.
  2. David Hollenbach, S.J., Driven From Home: Protecting the Rights of Forced Migrants.
  3. This text is a guidebook to JRS’s urban refugee programs, highlighting JRS’ unique approach to humanitarian work with displaced persons and migrants.

For more information on global trends and personal stories in migration and displacement, visit the UNHCR’s website.

The Center for Human Rights and International Justice has an ongoing partnership with Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS). JRS is an international and domestic Catholic NGO that serves, accompanies and advocates on behalf of refugees and other forcibly displaced persons around the world. JRS serves in 50 countries, providing assistance to: refugees in camps and cities, individuals displaced within their own countries, asylum seekers in cities and to those held in detention centers. The main areas of work are education, emergency assistance, healthcare, livelihood activities and social services. At the end of 2012, over 600,000 individuals were direct beneficiaries of JRS projects and programs.

More information on specific JRS programs and projects can be found on the JRS website.

See our Related Links page for links to a trove of relevant information.



A Somali refugee stands in a tent in Dollo Ado, Ethiopia
A Somali refugee stands in a tent in Dollo Ado, Ethiopia. She and her child fled drought and famine in their home country.



According to the United Nations High Commission on Refugees 2014 Global Trends Report, over 59.5 million people have been forcibly displaced and driven from their homes worldwide. This number includes 19.5 million refugees; 1.8 million asylum seekers; and 38.2 million internally displaced persons. Approximately every two seconds, someone is forced to flee their home. In 2014, the UNHCR estimates that nearly 42,500 persons per day were forced to leave their homes and seek protection elsewhere, either within their own borders or across borders. This resulted in 13.9 million people newly displaced due to conflict or persecution in 2014 alone.