Forced Migration Overview

An Introduction to the basic statistics and definitions of forced migration, including refugees, asylum seekers, internally displaced, economic migrants, and victims of human trafficking 


JRS Slide - Forced Migration Overview

JRS Slide - Forced Migration Overview

Forced Migration

Forced Migration is a general term that refers to the movements of refugees and internally displaced people (those displaced by conflicts) as well as people displaced by natural or environmental disasters, chemical or nuclear disasters, famine (disaster-induced displacement), or development projects (development-induced displacement). [5]


Refugees:  defined by the UNHCR as "persons residing outside his or her country of nationality, who is unable or unwilling to return because of a ‘well-founded fear of persecution on account of race, religion, nationality, membership in a political social group, or political opinion’. Those recognized as refugees are better off than other forced migrants, in that they have a clear legal status and are entitled to the protection of the UNHCR. The annual budget for the UNHCR has grown from US$300,000 in its first year to more than US$3.59 billion in 2012 and the agency works in 126 countries (UNHCR, 2012). 

Asylum seekers

Asylum seekers: people who have moved across an international border in search of protection under the 1951 Refugee Convention, but whose claim for refugee status has not yet been determined. As the numbers of asylum seekers rose during the 1990s and beyond, there was increasing scepticism from some politicians and the media, particularly in Western states, about the credibility of the claims of many asylum seekers. They have been labelled ‘economic refugees’ and ‘bogus asylum seekers’. Asylum migration is clearly a result of mixed motivations. Most asylum seekers do not come from the world‘s poorest states, however many do come from failed or failing states enduring civil war and with high degrees of human rights abuses and, not surprisingly, significant levels of poverty. However, the number of people who are seeking asylum in Western states comprises a small fraction of the total number displaced around the world.

Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs)

Internally Displaced Persons: persons who have been forced to flee their homes suddenly or unexpectedly in large numbers, as a result of armed conflict, internal strife, systematic violations of human rights or natural or man-made disasters, and who are within the territory of their own country. Sometimes referred to as ‘internal refugees’, these people are in similar need of protection and assistance as refugees but do not have the same legal and institutional support as those who have managed to cross an international border. There is no specifically-mandated body to provide assistance to IDPs, as there is with refugees. Statistics on IDPs are a controversial issue and there is no universal agreement.

Development displacees

Development displacees: People who are compelled to move as a result of policies and projects implemented to supposedly enhance ‘development’. These include large-scale infrastructure projects such as dams, roads, ports, airports; urban clearance initiatives; mining and deforestation; and the introduction of conservation parks/reserves and biosphere projects. Affected people usually remain within the borders of their country. People displaced in this way are sometimes also referred to as ‘oustees’, ‘involuntarily displaced’ or ‘involuntarily resettled’.

Environmental Refugees

Environmental and disaster displacees: Sometimes referred to ‘environmental refugees’ or ‘disaster refugees’, in fact most of those displaced by environmental factors or disasters do not leave the borders of their homeland. This category includes people displaced as a result of natural disasters (floods, volcanoes, landslides, earthquakes), environmental change (deforestation, desertification, land degradation, global warming) and human-made disasters (industrial accidents, radioactivity).

Smuggled people

Smuggled people: Smuggled migrants are moved illegally for profit. They are partners, however unequal, in a commercial transaction. This is not to say that the practice is not without substantial exploitation and danger. People who think they are being smuggled may run the risk of actually being trafficked (see below). And even if they are not, their personal safety and well-being on their journey and after arrival are not necessarily the smugglers’ top priority. Smuggled migrants may include those who have been forcibly displaced as well as those who have left their homeland in search of better economic and social opportunities. The motivations are often mixed. As the borders to favoured destination countries have become increasingly strengthened to resist the entry of asylum seekers, migrants of all kinds have increasingly drawn upon the services of smugglers.

Trafficked people

Trafficked people: These are people who are moved by deception or coercion for the purposes of exploitation. The profit in trafficking people comes not from their movement, but from the sale of their sexual services or labour in the country of destination. The trafficked person may be physically prevented from leaving, or be bound by debt or threat of violence to themselves or their family in their country of origin. Like smuggling, by its very clandestine nature, figures on the number of people being trafficked are extremely difficult to obtain.

Human Trafficking

Human Trafficking is the world's fastest growing criminal enterprise and is an estimated $32 billion-a-year global industry. After drug trafficking, human trafficking is the world's second most profitable criminal enterprise, a status it shares with illegal arms trafficking. Like drug and arms trafficking, the United States is one of the top destination countries for trafficking in persons.  The United Nations defines it as "the recruitment, transportation, transfer, harboring or receipt of persons, by means of the threat or use of force or other forms of coercion, of abduction, of fraud, of deception, of the abuse of power or of a position of vulnerability or of the giving or receiving of payments or benefits to achieve the consent of a person having control over another person, for the purpose of exploitation." [1]

California is one of the nation's top four destination states for trafficking human beings, and known trafficking hotspots include San Francisco Bay Area and Los Angeles. A recent study conducted of Human Trafficking in Silicon Valley found that Santa Clara, San Francisco and Alameda County had the highest incidences of human trafficking. The top labor trafficking industries are domestic labor, restaurant and food service, and peddling rings.  The top sex trafficking rings are pimp-controlled prostitution, commercial-front brothels (such as massage parlors and nail salons), and escort services. In both instances, you've probably seen a victim and just didn't know it. [2, 3, 4]




[1] “What is Human Trafficking”, United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), accessed April 15 2015,

[2] “Human Trafficking”, State of California Department of Justice Office of the Attorney General (OAG), accessed April 15 2015,

[3] Not For Sale, “Human Trafficking in Silicon Valley”, October 2014,

[4] “Human Trafficking Trends in the United States 2013”, National Human Trafficking Resource Center (NHTRC), accessed April 15 2015, 

[5] "What Is Forced Migration", Forced Migration Online,