Forced to Flee: 6 Documentaries to Watch to Understand the Global Refugee Crisis

Helen (left) and Sara (right), two of the "Children of Syria" in FRONTLINE's documentary chronicling a family's escape from Syria to a new life as refugees in Germany.

Helen (left) and Sara (right), two of the "Children of Syria" in FRONTLINE's documentary chronicling a family's escape from Syria to a new life as refugees in Germany.

June 19, 2019

The number of people around the world who have been driven from their homes is once again at a record high.

According to a report released Wednesday, almost 71 million people worldwide were forcibly displaced by “persecution, conflict, violence or human rights violations” by the end of 2018. That’s an increase of 2.3 million from the previous record high in 2017.

The Global Trends report for 2017, which is compiled by the office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, documented the biggest one-year increase in refugees the agency had ever recorded — from 22.5 million to 25.4 million. This year’s report put the refugee population at 25.9 million, with an additional 41.3 million people displaced within their own countries, and 3.5 million seeking asylum.

The report also stated that 13.6 million people were freshly displaced in 2018, with the rest having fled their homes in previous years. “The number of new displacements was equivalent to an average of 37,000 people being forced to flee their homes every day in 2018,” the report said.

Here are six FRONTLINE documentaries that shed light on some of the conflicts driving this global exodus. These films show the first-hand experiences of people who have fled their homes in search of safety.

Children of Syria (2016)

Some 6.7 million people — more than a quarter of the global refugee population — have fled brutal violence in Syria, the report said. This documentary chronicles the stories of some of the youngest. Filmed over three years, it follows four Syrian children from their struggle to survive the siege of Aleppo by President Bashar al-Assad’s regime, to the devastating kidnapping of their father, to the beginning of their new lives as refugees. “These children, if we give them a future, they will benefit their homeland,” their mother, Hala Kamil, said in the film. “They will rebuild it.” 

ISIS in Afghanistan (2015)

Second only to Syria, 2.7 million of the world’s refugees at the end of 2018 were from Afghanistan, the report said. In this FRONTLINE documentary, Afghan journalist Najibullah Quraishi — who has covered the war between the Taliban and the American-led coalition for more than a decade — explored a new front in the country’s violence: the emergence of ISIS. The film offers an up-close perspective on the sort of danger and volatility Afghan refugees are fleeing. “I was thinking maybe the war will never end,” Quraishi said in the documentary, after filming ISIS fighters teaching children how to kill. “Never. And the people will keep suffering from war.”

On the Brink of Famine (2016)

Another 2.3 million refugees, according to the report, are from South Sudan — where a brutal civil war has sparked a man-made hunger crisis and driven millions of people from their homes. In this immersive, 360-degree documentary from FRONTLINE and the Brown Institute, meet people who were forced to abandon their farmlands and villages to escape the violence — people like Nyakouth, who said she was kidnapped and raped when a pro-government militia attacked her village. “They killed my nephew when he was out taking care of the cattle,” said Nyakouth, who eventually escaped her captors and went on to her country’s largest camp for internally displaced people.

Myanmar’s Killing Fields (2018)

At the end of 2018, the report said, 1.1 million of the world’s refugees were from Myanmar, which saw a violent government crackdown on the Rohingya Muslim minority. Drawing on secret footage filmed by a network of citizen activists, this documentary tells the story of an orchestrated campaign against Rohingya Muslims in majority-Buddhist Myanmar going back more than five years — long before their exodus became world news. In the documentary, Rohingyas living in the world’s largest refugee camp in Bangladesh share harrowing stories about why they fled. “My five-year-old was thrown into the river,” said Mumtaz Begum, who survived a massacre at a village called Tula Toli. “I had a two-year-old baby on my hip. They grabbed the baby and threw him in the fire … As they raped me, my daughter was screaming, so they macheted her three times.”

Exodus (2016) & Exodus: The Journey Continues (2017)

In Exodus, FRONTLINE told the epic, first-hand stories of refugees and migrants fleeing countries including Syria, Afghanistan and The Gambia, who made dangerous journeys across 26 countries in search of safety and a better life. The initial two-hour special relied on camera and smartphone footage filmed by refugees and migrants themselves — from inside a sinking dinghy on a route across the Mediterranean Sea that claimed thousands of lives, to the tents and fires inside Calais’s notorious “Jungle” camp. “Anyone can become a refugee, anyone,” Hassan Akkad, who claims he fled Syria after he was beaten and imprisoned by government forces, said in the film. “It’s not something which you choose. It’s something that happens to you.”

The second documentary chronicles the journeys of refugees and migrants caught in Europe’s tightened borders, who face heightened nationalism and rising anti-immigrant sentiment. “When we were back home, we’d talk about how peaceful and wonderful it would be in Europe, and that we’d live happily ever after,” said a young man named Azizzulah, who fled Afghanistan after his brother — who worked as a translator for the U.S. Army — was killed in a bombing that also killed four American soldiers. “But had I known that the way would be so difficult, I would have never come.”

Patrice Taddonio

Patrice Taddonio, Digital Writer & Audience Development Strategist, FRONTLINE



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