Series on World Refugee Day: Refugees 101 (Part 1 of 3)

On June 20th, World Refugee Day, individuals and communities around the world will stand in solidarity with refugees who struggle to rebuild their lives thousands of miles from their former homes. Tune in to this blog throughout the next week to learn more about who refugees are and why they need our support.

Photo credit: ABC News

As defined by the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, “a refugee is someone outside his or her home country with a well-founded fear of persecution in that country based on race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion.”

Let’s unpack this definition to get a better sense of who is a refugee, why people become refugees, and what makes a refugee distinctive.

Home country – A refugee leaves the borders of his or her country of residence. This may or may not be his or her country of origin or country of citizenship; “home country” refers to where the individual was raised or lived indefinitely.

Well-founded fear – Refugees have a credible reason to believe that if they were to return to their home country, they would be tortured or otherwise persecuted for who they are.

Persecution – If a person is a target for violence as a result of his or her identity, then he or she faces persecution. Some examples of identity-based persecution are certain civil conflicts, genocide, and oppression of political, national, or religious groups. If a person must flee his or her home country to avoid identity-based persecution, then he or she is a refugee.

Membership in a particular social group – Social group membership is a kind of identity category that could label someone as a target for persecution. This particular category has expanded in recent years to include persons persecuted on the basis of their sexuality.

If a refugee flees the home country and arrives in another country to seek refuge, he or she is eligible for Refugee Status Determination. If he or she is determined to be a refugee by the relevant authorities, then he or she is eligible for temporary residence in that country and cannot be sent back home on the principle of non-refoulement. Non-refoulement means that a government cannot repatriate a refugee knowing that he or she will be persecuted upon return.

If individual refugees manage to seek refuge in another country, this does not mean that they are instantly awarded citizenship and commence rebuilding their lives. These processes take years and are extremely complicated. Refugees are a subset of displaced persons, a category that also includes internally displaced persons, stateless persons, and asylum-seekers. Different international and country-specific policies apply to various types of displaced persons.

As of 2014, the United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR) estimated that the number of displaced persons in the world has exceeded 50 million. This number represents a global all-time high for internal displacement and the highest number of refugees since the end of World War II. As World Refugee Day approaches, we will narrate the stories and analyze the challenges facing refugees around the world, and will examine responses and advocacy on their behalf.