Who Are Refugees?

The term refugee is familiar to most people. Common notions of refugees include people fleeing for their lives to escape a natural disaster or war zone. Past examples of mass refugee flows include the Balkans war, the Rwandan genocide and World War II. The concept of seeking refuge has been present in our cultures and societies for a long time.

1951 Geneva Convention

The most widely used legal definition of a refugee is contained in the 1951 Geneva Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, which has been signed by one hundred and forty seven countries. These states recognise the right of a person to flee their country because they have a “well-founded fear of being persecuted” due to their race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion.

Other definitions are found in international treaties such as the Convention Governing the Specific Aspects of Refugee Problems in Africa that has been signed by forty five countries and the Cartagena Declaration on Refugees, Colloquium on the International Protection of Refugees in Central America, Mexico and Panama signed by thirty five countries.

What all these treaties describe is the basic notion of a person forced to leave their country of origin and seek refuge in a foreign land.

Distinguishing refugees from migrants.

Refugees are by no means the only people living outside their country of origin. In today's global village people are constantly leaving their homes in search of new opportunities. Migration across borders or within a country is a reality for many societies across the world.

In public debates the distinction between refugees and other people on the move is often blurred. It is important to remember however, that refugees have a distinct legal status. Refugees are forced to leave their country because their lives are in danger. Migrants and other groups on the move often make a conscious decision for economic and other reasons. Refugees don't have this choice.

Refugees are forced to leave and need international protection. This is why one hundred and forty seven countries across the world have signed the Geneva Convention and granted refugees a unique legal status.

Numbers of Refugees.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) estimates that there are currently around 8.8 million refugees globally. In addition there are some 2 million people living in refugee-like situations and an additional 4.8 million Palestinian refugees. Counted together this comes to approximately 16 million people.

Recap: refugees are...

  • Persons fleeing persecution as defined in the 1951 Geneva Convention and other treaties.
  • Persons that cross an international border and are given protection by a host country.
  • Not migrants or other groups on the move. Refugees have a distinct legal status.