What is a Refugee? 

by | Jun 7, 2019

I think it’s safe to say that most people have an opinion about how the world (or at least their country) should respond to migrants, refugees, and asylum-seekers. But the discussion in politics, in the news, and consequently around the dinner table tends to be focused on how the existence of these people affects us.

We aren’t often given information about who these refugees are, how they came to be refugees, or what their lives are like as refugees. Really, we aren’t told what “being a refugee” even means. Without understanding these underlying facts, we don’t understand what decisions we are being asked to make: who are we talking about, what is their life like now, what alternatives exist, and how they will be affected by our actions; it’s impossible to form an opinion about the appropriate response. 

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees reports that there are currently 25.4 million refugees. Over half of this population are refugee children, under the age of 18. There is much discussion about who can be defined as a “refugee,” what should be done for them, and who should do it. With more refugees in the world than have ever existed—ever in the history of the world—leaders in human rights advocacy, statelessness, and international policy continue to move the conversation closer to action. 

The refugee crisis is a phenomenon of overwhelming proportion and complexity with the number of refugees continually increasing.  In order to begin to understand the issues within the crisis, it is critical to understand the language used in discussion of refugee law.  It is also important to distinguish refugees from other demographics that may share some aspects of their experience or needs in order to provide appropriate and adequate solutions for each group. 

Definition of Refugee & Important Terms


A refugee is someone who has been forced to flee his or her home country  and is unwilling or unable to return on account of a well-founded fear of being persecuted or of experiencing human rights violations for reasons of race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or “membership of a particular social group.” 

An important aspect of a refugees fear of persecution is that they are unable to seek protection in their own country whether that is because their government or law does not have the capacity to provide protection against the persecutor or because the government itself is the persecutor.

One-third of existing refugees reside in refugee camps. Fewer than 1% are resettled—transferred from a country in which they are seeking asylum to one offering permanent residency—in any given year.

Asylum-Seeker (Asylee):

Once a refugee arrives in a foreign country and begins the process of seeking protection and admission based on their fear to return to their country of origin, that person is considered an asylum-seeker or asylee. There are 3.1 million asylum-seekers globally. The asylum process varies from country to country, from state to state, and from judge to judge. Asylum acceptance rates in the United States, for example, can range from 1-97% depending on which state the asylum-seeker is in and which judge hears their case.

Displaced Person:

Refugees are included in the broad description of “displaced people”—people forced (or “displaced”) from their homes. But, “displaced people” also includes people who have been displaced within their own country, who have not crossed any international borders. There are over 30 million “internally displaced people” globally right now. Internally displaced persons remain within the borders of their home country and are not protected by international law because they are legally still subject to the protection of that country’s government.

Stateless Person:

A stateless person may also be displaced. But, unlike refugees, a stateless person is “a person who is not considered as a national by any State under the operation of its law.” A person may be born stateless or may become stateless as consequence of a transfer of territory between countries, discrimination against their religious or ethnic group that prevents them from claiming any legal status or citizenship, or other legal loopholes surrounding the nationality laws of they country.

Climate Refugees/Climate Migrants:

Climate refugees, or climate migrants, are migrants who were forced to flee due to sudden or gradual changes in the natural environment and resulting changes in weather patterns in their home country. Climate migrants may be forced to leave their homes because of extreme weather events like flooding, drought and water scarcity, food scarcity, or natural disasters. Climate migrants are not legally considered “refugees.”

Who is a Refugee and Where are Refugees Coming From?

Most importantly, they are human beings who have made the unimaginably difficult decision to leave their homes and embark on an arduous and often very dangerous journey in search of a safe life for themselves and their family. Some hope to leave only for a short period, while others know they will never be able to return home. This is a situation many of us cannot even begin to imagine. 

Two thirds of people with refugee status come from only a few countries including: Syria, Afghanistan, South Sudan, Myanmar, and Somalia.  Large numbers of refugees also come from the Democratic Republic of the Congo (“DRC”) and Columbia.

Refugees seeking international protection are fleeing devastating violence caused by war, armed conflict, sexual violence, torture, or other persecution based on their personal beliefs or identity.

Where are Refugees Going?

In the most developed nations, including the United States and European Union member states, there is “often a false sense among elected leaders and citizens that they are shouldering the majority of responsibility for refugees, and that all refugees would travel to one of these regions if given the opportunity.”  Contrary to this belief, Africa or Asia take in the vast majority of refugees, while the developed world takes only 15%.  The majority, by far, of the world’s refugees are hosted in developing nations, including Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon, Pakistan, Uganda, and Iran. These are definitely not the countries we would imagine to be most apt to host these vulnerable populations.

Other countries have done more than their part to respond to contemporary crises as they arise. For example, Greece received over 1 million refugees from the Syrian Refugee Crisis in 2015-2016, despite its already fragile ecosystem.

In addition, Bangladesh—already the most densely populated county in the world—currently hosts 4% of the world’s refugee population since, in 2017, over 700,000 refugees fled over the border from Myanmar into Bangladesh in the short span of three months.  Nearly a million refugees are now in Bangladesh.  It is now the location of the world’s largest refugee camp.

International Discussion

In 1948, the global community came together and, for the first time, laid out the fundamental rights of all people to be respected internationally. The result was the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Here, the then-58 members of the UN recognized that “the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world,” and “contempt for human rights have resulted in barbarous acts which have outraged the conscience of mankind….”

The 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, aka the 1951 Refugee Convention, marked the first time that refugees were officially acknowledged by the international community.  There, 145 states came together and defined “refugee” for the first time, beginning the conversation about the status of refugees in terms of their legal rights and their relationship to the rest of the world.  The convention sought to provide a framework for supporting refugees displaced after World War II.  The resulting understanding from the convention provided the groundwork for today’s international refugee policy.  

One consensus view from the convention that permeates modern discussions of refugee assistance and asylum is: international cooperation is critical in meeting the humanitarian demands of a refugee crisis in order to avoid inequitable burdens on select countries. In other words, without everyone agreeing to do their part, a few countries (and perhaps not countries with the most resources) would have to address the international issue on their own.

Despite the progress of getting the topic into the international conversation, one NGO observer at the 1951 Refugee Convention noted that it seemed as if the convention was trying to protect “helpless sovereign states against the wicked refugee.” There was still much work to be done in developing the discussion and moving that discussion into action. 

Although the NGO observer’s quote continues to describe much of the international response to the refugee crisis today, the international conversation continued and the discussion around refugees evolved—not without a persistent push from advocacy groups and representatives.  Recently, the international community joined together at the 2016 New York Declaration. This was the first time the United Nations General Assembly (including 193 governments) made a commitment to share responsibility for global refugees regardless of where they live, where they are from, and whether their State had signed onto the 1951 Refugee Convention.

The result would be a Global Compact on Refugees that would provide a framework for an international response to the rapidly growing refugee crisis and for the States who committed to providing collective solutions. In developing this framework, discussions between the participating States searched for the fairest way to address the crisis refugees. The UN sought to use the resulting Global Compact “to operationalize the principles of burden and responsibility sharing to better protect and assist refugees and support host countries and communities.”  However, little was offered in terms of an objective mechanism for determining how best to calculate the fair distribution of the responsibility.

More Information

In elementary school, we learned about WWII and, shocked that something like that could happen, you would think about what you would have done if you had been there. With the full story in front of you, you could look at what actions were taken and understand what consequences would follow. The consequences for the persecuted people weigh heavily as you decide who you would’ve been and who you would’ve supported.

As we kick off World Refugee Month, we have a great opportunity to better understand the humanitarian crisis that lays before us, to develop our opinions with a more complete understanding of the circumstances, and to discuss the full implications attached to the positions and action we ultimately take. 

The UNHCR is a global organization that was created to help the millions who were forced to leave their homes during World War II, and they continue to work closely with displaced people today. The UNHCR is a go-to when you are looking for information how the state of the refugee crisis. There are many more organizations taking action and reporting on the crisis every day; many of these are linked to in this article.

Hopefully a fuller perspective leads us to advocate for the protection of refugees, not the avoidance of them. 

Annie Bright

Annie Bright


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