October 18, 2016

Middle East’s Migrant Population More Than Doubles Since 2005

1. Conflicts in Syria, Iraq and Yemen lead to millions of displaced migrants in the Middle East since 2005

Between 2005 and 2015, the number of displaced migrants3 in the Middle East grew fourfold, from about 5 million to about 23 million. Much of this rise was the result of recent conflict in three countries – Syria, Iraq and Yemen.

In 2015, Syria had by far the largest number (7.1 million) of displaced migrants living within its borders. Nearly all of them (92%) have been internally displaced by the country’s ongoing civil war. Iraq had the second largest displaced population in the Middle East, at 4.7 million. Like Syria’s situation, most (94%) are internally displaced Iraqis.

Meanwhile, Jordan’s displaced migrant population, at 2.9 million people, is a combination of Syrian refugees (628,000, or 22% of all displaced people in Jordan as of 2015) and a long-established population of Palestinian refugees (about 2.2 million, or 76% of all displaced people in Jordan as of 2015). Similarly, Lebanon’s 1.5 million displaced migrants are a combination of about 1 million Syrian and almost 500,000 Palestinian refugees.4

Turkey and Yemen had about 2.8 million displaced migrants as of the end of 2015. The origins of their respective displaced populations are quite different, however. Turkey’s displaced migrants are largely Syrian refugees, of which the number has grown significantly since the beginning of the civil war in Syria. In Yemen, nine-in-ten displaced migrants are internally displaced persons.

Absolute numbers tell only part of the story of the Middle East’s displaced population. As a share of the total population, displaced persons constitute a substantial minority in Jordan (38%), Syria (39%) and Lebanon (26%).

In 2015, Syria’s displaced population was almost entirely made up of internally displaced Syrians. Between 2006 and 2011, by contrast, Iraqi refugees were the largest displaced group within Syria. Yet even at the height of sectarian violence in Iraq in 2007, displaced migrants made up only 10% of Syria’s population. (Since the Syrian conflict began in 2011, fewer Iraqi refugees now live in Syria.)

Today, about one-in-ten people living in Iraq (13%) as well as Yemen (10%) are displaced migrants. Most displaced migrants in Iraq are Iraqi nationals who have been forced from their homes but are still living in that country. In Yemen, most displaced migrants are internally displaced persons as well, but a substantial number (about a quarter million or about 10%) are refugees from other countries, mostly from Somalia.

Migrants displaced within their home countries: Rapid rise in Syria, Iraq and Yemen in recent years

The number of internally displaced persons in the Middle East has grown rapidly over the past decade. In 2005, slightly more than a million people living in the Middle East had been displaced from their homes and were living in their countries of birth. By 2015, the number had climbed to about 13 million. As of 2015, nearly all internally displaced migrants in the Middle East lived in just three countries: Syria, Iraq and Yemen.

The conflict in Syria that followed 2011’s Arab Spring protests left about 2 million Syrians internally displaced by the end of 2012. As the insurgency opposed to President Bashar al-Assad’s regime intensified and the caliphate declared by the militant group ISIS continued to expand across Syria, this number of internally displaced persons grew to 6.6 million by the end of 2015.

Sectarian violence in Iraq led to a total of 2.6 million internally displaced people within Iraq by the end of 2008. The number of Iraqis displaced within their country then declined, as the intensity of civil strife subsided. However, armed campaigns by ISIS soon drove more people from their homes. The number of internally displaced Iraqis rose from slightly less than a million in 2013 to more than 4.4 million by 2015.

In Yemen, conflict also grew the number of internally displaced people. While this population numbered in the hundreds of thousands through 2014, a subsequent surge in violence increased the number of internally displaced Yemenis to more than 2.5 million by the end of that year.

Migrants displaced across borders: Most refugees are in Jordan, Turkey, Lebanon and Iran

Millions of people, while remaining in the Middle East region, have crossed international borders as refugees or asylum seekers. A total of 9.6 million refugees or asylum seekers lived in the Middle East as of the end of 2015, up from 4.2 million in 2005 – a nearly 130% increase.5

The number of refugees in a given country is based on the number who are registered for assistance from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (for non-Palestinian refugees), the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (for Palestinian refugees) and other aid groups. Not all refugees register with such groups, however, and estimates of refugee populations in Middle Eastern countries based on these sources should be interpreted as minimum population estimates.

In 2015, fully 85% of refugees and asylum seekers in the Middle East lived in just four countries: Jordan (nearly 2.9 million), Turkey (about 2.8 million), Lebanon (about 1.5 million) and Iran (about 1 million). The number of refugees living in Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon grew rapidly after the onset of the Syrian conflict. Meanwhile, the number of refugees in Iran has been somewhat stable at roughly 1 million for the entire decade, with most of this refugee population displaced from neighboring Afghanistan.

Iraq (285,000 refugees and asylum seekers in 2015) has seen a rapid rise in persons displaced from neighboring countries after 2011 as well, mainly Syria. Yemen (277,000 refugees in 2015) and Egypt (251,000 refugees in 2015) have also seen their refugee populations swell, due in large part to conflicts in Somalia, Ethiopia and other countries in sub-Saharan Africa.

The majority of refugees and asylum seekers in the Middle East in 2015 can be traced to three points of origin: Syria (4.6 million), the Palestinian territories (3.2 million) and Afghanistan (1.0 million).

As of the end of 2015, nearly all of Syrian refugees in the Middle East lived in just three countries: Turkey (2.5 million), Lebanon (1.1 million) and Jordan (628,000). Outside of the Palestinian territories, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria host Palestinian refugees. Meanwhile, Afghan refugees living in the Middle East are mainly located in Iran.

  1. Displaced migrants are persons who have been forcibly displaced from their homes due to conflict or natural disaster. Displaced migrants can include internal migrants (internally displaced persons) or international migrants (refugees and asylum seekers).
  2. Estimates for Palestinian refugees in Jordan as of 2015 are extrapolated from the growth rate between 2013 and 2014. These figures may not reflect final data.
  3. Most Palestinian refugees living in Jordan, Lebanon and Syria have not crossed international borders as they are descendants of Palestinian refugees who left Palestine following the establishment of Israel in 1948.