Refugees in Contemporary Global Migration

June 16, 2015

The following sources include a news report in 2007 on Iraqi refugees in Sweden and interviews in 1998 of Hmong refugees living in Minnesota. Its goal is to explore the refugee experience, both from an international or geopolitical perspective and from a personal standpoint. 

This lesson addresses state teaching standards:
V. GEOGRAPHY C. Spatial Organization: The student will understand the regional distribution of the human population at local to global scales and its patterns of change. Example: Refugee movements.
II. MINNESOTA HISTORY G. Post-World War II to the Present: Students will identify and describe significant demographic changes in Minnesota and issues related to those changes and analyze the significance of their impact.


As defined by the United Nations, "refugees" refer to people who are forced to leave the country of their nationality "owing to well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion." The United Nations adopted this PDF iconlegal definition in 1951 after World War II displaced millions of people worldwide, including victims of the Holocaust.

While people have been fleeing their homelands to escape religious and civil strife for centuries, the twentieth century witnessed increasing waves of refugee migration due to civil and international wars, ethnic conflicts and genocide, and political and religious discrimination.  PDF icon A report by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) shows that the global refugee population, after declining from 2000 to 2005, continued to increase and reached 11.4 million in 2007. Most refugees fled to and remain in neighboring countries. At the end of 2007, about one-third of all refugees resided in countries in the Asia and Pacific region. The Middle East and North Africa region hosted a quarter of all refugees, while Africa, Europe, and the Americas hosted 20, 14, and 9 percent of the world's refugees, respectively. Afghanistan continued to be the leading country of origin, with almost 3.1 million fleeing refugees in 2007. 96% of these Afghan refugees fled in Pakistan and the Islamic Republic of Iran. Iraq had the second-largest exodus, with 2.3 million refugees escaping Iraq, to mainly settle in neighboring regions. Forced to leave their homelands, refugees face the challenges of reconstructing their identities and communities (including ties with their homelands) while adjusting to the cultural complexities of receiving societies.


The following two sources provide examples of two refugee groups in different countries. 

  1. A New York Times report on Iraqi refugees in Sweden discussing why large numbers of Iraqi refugees have fled to Sweden since the start of the Iraq War in 2003. 
    Ekman, Ivar. "Iraqi Refugees Find Sanctuary, and Fellow Iraqis, in Sweden." New York Times, January 16, 2007, sec. A9.

  2. Minnesota Public Radio (MPR) reports of and interviews with Hmong refugees in the Twin Cities, Minnesota, describing how they came to the US and adjusted to their new society.
    Nyman, Lynette. "This is Home: the Hmong in Minnesota." News and Features. Minnesota Public Radio, March 8, 1998. 
    Part 1: PDF iconHard Workaudio
    Part 2: Leading Peopleaudio
    Part 3: PDF iconSew It Rightaudio
    Part 4: PDF iconGoing Homeaudio
    PDF iconExcerpts: "This is Home: the Hmong in Minnesota"  

Community Resources

Center for Hmong Studies at Concordia University 
Hmong Arts, Books, and Crafts

Discussion Questions

  1. Compare these two sources, discuss how different factors such as geographic distance, ethnic networks, and immigration laws and refugee policies in the receiving countries affect refugees' choices (or lack of choices) to migrate.
  2. Why did Hmong refugees come to the US? What impact did these experiences have on familial and personal identities? How did Hmong refugees maintain ties to and reconnect with the lands they left?
  3. The integration of refugees in receiving societies has often been problematic. What difficulties have Hmong and Iraqi refugees experienced in adjusting to and integrating into their new countries?
  4. How do these two sources help locate refugee experiences in larger global contexts? How do politics, economy, and communities at local, national and international levels work together to influence refugees' migration and relocation?

Classroom Activities

Students continue this line of research in their own community with Somali, Liberian, or Karen populations that have migrated to Minnesota in the last decade.

Suggested Readings

Cutts, Mark, ed. The State of the World's Refugees: Fifty Years of Humanitarian Action. United Nations. 2000.

Lischer, Sarah Kenyon. Dangerous Sanctuaries: Refugee Camps, Civil War, and the Dilemmas of Humanitarian Aid. Ithaca: Cornell University Press. 2005.

Ong, Aihwa. Buddha is Hiding: Refugees, Citizenship, the New America. Berkeley: University of California Press. 2003.