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For other uses, see Refugee (disambiguation).
Refugees in 2015[1]
Total population
15.484 million
Regions with significant populations
Africa 4.397 million
Europe 4.363 million
Asia and the Pacific 3.552 million
Middle East and North Africa 2.675 million
Americas 496,384

A refugee, generally speaking, is a displaced person who has been forced to cross national boundaries and who cannot return home safely (for more detail see legal definition). Such a person may be called an asylum seeker until granted refugee status by the contracting state or the UNHCR[2] if they formally make a claim for asylum.[3]

The lead international agency coordinating refugee protection is the United Nations Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). The United Nations have a second Office for refugees, which is the UNRWA. This however is solely responsible for supporting Palestinian refugees.

Etymology and usage[edit]

Although similar terms in other languages have described an event marking large scale migration of a specific population from a place of origin, such as the biblical account of Israelites fleeing from Assyrian conquest (circa 740 BCE), in English, the term refugee derives from the root word refuge, from Old French refuge, meaning "hiding place". It refers to "shelter or protection from danger or distress", from Latin fugere, "to flee", and refugium, "a taking [of] refuge, place to flee back to". In Western history, the term was first applied to French Huguenots, after the Edict of Fontainebleau (1540), who again migrated from France after the Edict of Nantes revocation (1685). The word meant "one seeking asylum," until around 1914, when it evolved to mean "one fleeing home", applied in this instance to civilians in Flanders heading west to escape fighting in World War I.[4]

Legal definition[edit]

Darfur refugee camp in Chad, 2005

Following World War II and in response to the large numbers of people fleeing Eastern Europe, the UN 1951 Refugee Convention adopted the following definition of "refugee" to apply to any person who (in Article 1.A.2):[2]

owing to well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country; or who, not having a nationality and being outside the country of his former habitual residence as a result of such events, is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to return to it.[2]

The concept of a refugee was expanded by the Convention's 1967 Protocol. Regional conventions in Africa and Latin America included displaced persons who had fled war or other violence in their home country. European Union's minimum standards definition of refugee, underlined by Art. 2 (c) of Directive No. 2004/83/EC, essentially reproduces the narrow definition of refugee offered by the UN 1951 Convention; nevertheless, by virtue of articles 2 (e) and 15 of the same Directive, persons who have fled a war-caused generalized violence are, at certain conditions, eligible for a complementary form of protection, called subsidiary protection. The same form of protection is foreseen for displaced people who, without being refugees, are nevertheless exposed, if returned to their countries of origin, to death penalty, torture or other inhuman or degrading treatments.

In UN parlance, the concept of 'refugee' also includes descendants of refugees but only in the case of two specific groups, viz. Palestinian refugees and Sahrawi refugees. As a result, the vast majority of registered refugees within these two groups have not themselves been displaced, but they have inherited the 'refugee status' and hence their eligibility for aid and services, provided they meet certain criteria established by the UN and/or aid agencies. The UN does not consider refugee status to be hereditary for any other group, but may still assist relatives of refugees in some cases. The UNHCR also protects people in refugee-like situations.

The Convention Governing the Specific Aspects of Refugee Problems in Africa, adopted by the Organization of African Unity in 1969, accepted the definition of the 1951 Refugee Convention and expanded it to include people who left their countries of origin not only because of persecution but also due to acts of external aggression, occupation, domination by foreign powers or serious disturbances of public order.[5]


The original definition with all its legacies has been criticized as based on three political framings:[6]

  1. "refugees have been defined in terms of those moving across nation-state borders, as if national identity excludes all other displacements of equal consequence ...";
  2. "the neat definition of Article 1 glides over the fine print a little further down the page that allows state signatories to choose to restrict the definition of refugees to only those who have come from Europe, and during a very particular time-period ...";
  3. "it gives credence to the notion that personal individualized ‘fear of being persecuted’ is the core reason for needing support. War, upheaval, famine and pestilence do not in the conventional definition make for refugee status. It does not matter that civilian deaths as a proportion of deaths in war escalated to 10% in World War I, and to more than 90% of the 40 million killed since 1945. It only matters that persons fear the persecution of their state."

Furthermore, not all reasons for seeking asylum in another country satisfy the definition of "refugee" according to article 1A of the 1951 Refugee Convention. In 1951, when the text of the Convention was discussed, the parties of the treaty had the idea that slavery was a thing from the past: therefore escaped and fleeing slaves are a group not mentioned in the definition. Fleeing droughts and hunger, fleeing economic hardship, natural disasters and not even war or terror satisfied the definition of 1951.


Greeks fleeing the Destruction of Psara in 1824 (painting by Nikolaos Gyzis).

The idea that a person who sought sanctuary in a holy place could not be harmed without inviting divine retribution was familiar to the ancient Greeks and ancient Egyptians. However, the right to seek asylum in a church or other holy place was first codified in law by King Æthelberht of Kent in about AD 600. Similar laws were implemented throughout Europe in the Middle Ages. The related concept of political exile also has a long history: Ovid was sent to Tomis; Voltaire was sent to England. By the 1648 Peace of Westphalia, nations recognized each other's sovereignty. However, it was not until the advent of romantic nationalism in late 18th-century Europe that nationalism gained sufficient prevalence for the phrase "country of nationality" to become practically meaningful, and for people crossing borders to be required to provide identification.

One million Armenians fled Turkey between 1915 and 1923 to escape persecution and genocide.
Turkish refugees from Edirne, 1913

The term "refugee" is sometimes applied to people who might fit the definition outlined by the 1951 Convention, were it to be applied retroactively. There are many candidates. For example, after the Edict of Fontainebleau in 1685 outlawed Protestantism in France, hundreds of thousands of Huguenots fled to England, the Netherlands, Switzerland, South Africa, Germany and Prussia. The repeated waves of pogroms that swept Eastern Europe in the 19th and early 20th centuries prompted mass Jewish emigration (more than 2 million Russian Jews emigrated in the period 1881–1920). Beginning in the 19th century, Muslim people emigrated to Turkey from Europe.[7] The Balkan Wars of 1912–1913 caused 800,000 people to leave their homes.[8] Various groups of people were officially designated refugees beginning in World War I.

League of Nations[edit]

Children preparing for evacuation from Spain during the Spanish Civil War between 1936 and 1939.

The first international co-ordination of refugee affairs came with the creation by the League of Nations in 1921 of the High Commission for Refugees and the appointment of Fridtjof Nansen as its head. Nansen and the Commission were charged with assisting the approximately 1,500,000 people who fled the Russian Revolution of 1917 and the subsequent civil war (1917–1921),[9] most of them aristocrats fleeing the Communist government. It is estimated that about 800,000 Russian refugees became stateless when Lenin revoked citizenship for all Russian expatriates in 1921.[10]

In 1923, the mandate of the Commission was expanded to include the more than one million Armenians who left Turkish Asia Minor in 1915 and 1923 due to a series of events now known as the Armenian Genocide. Over the next several years, the mandate was expanded further to cover Assyrians and Turkish refugees.[11] In all of these cases, a refugee was defined as a person in a group for which the League of Nations had approved a mandate, as opposed to a person to whom a general definition applied.[citation needed]

The 1923 population exchange between Greece and Turkey involved about two million people (around 1.5 million Anatolian Greeks and 500,000 Muslims in Greece) most of whom were forcibly repatriated and denaturalized[clarification needed] from homelands of centuries or millennia (and guaranteed the nationality of the destination country) by a treaty promoted and overseen by the international community as part of the Treaty of Lausanne.[12]

The U.S. Congress passed the Emergency Quota Act in 1921, followed by the Immigration Act of 1924. The Immigration Act of 1924 was aimed at further restricting the Southern and Eastern Europeans, especially Jews, Italians and Slavs, who had begun to enter the country in large numbers beginning in the 1890s.[13] Most of the European refugees (principally Jews and Slavs) fleeing Stalin, the Nazis and World War II were barred from going to the United States.[14]

In 1930, the Nansen International Office for Refugees (Nansen Office) was established as a successor agency to the Commission. Its most notable achievement was the Nansen passport, a refugee travel document, for which it was awarded the 1938 Nobel Peace Prize. The Nansen Office was plagued by problems of financing, an increase in refugee numbers, and a lack of co-operation from some member states, which led to mixed success overall.

However, the Nansen Office managed to lead fourteen nations to ratify the 1933 Refugee Convention, an early, and relatively modest, attempt at a human rights charter, and in general assisted around one million refugees worldwide.[15]

1933 (rise of Nazism) to 1944[edit]

The rise of Nazism led to such a very large increase in the number of refugees from Germany that in 1933 the League created a High Commission for Refugees Coming from Germany. Besides other measures by the Nazis which created fear and flight, Jews were stripped of German citizenship[16] by the Reich Citizenship Law of 1935.[17] On 4 July 1936 an agreement was signed under League auspices that defined a refugee coming from Germany as "any person who was settled in that country, who does not possess any nationality other than German nationality, and in respect of whom it is established that in law or in fact he or she does not enjoy the protection of the Government of the Reich" (article 1).[18]

Czech refugees from the Sudetenland, October 1938

The mandate of the High Commission was subsequently expanded to include persons from Austria and Sudetenland, which Germany annexed after 1 October 1938 in accordance with the Munich Agreement. According to the Institute for Refugee Assistance, the actual count of refugees from Czechoslovakia on 1 March 1939 stood at almost 150,000.[19] Between 1933 and 1939, about 200,000 Jews fleeing Nazism were able to find refuge in France,[20] while at least 55,000 Jews were able to find refuge in Palestine[21] before the British authorities closed that destination in 1939.

On 31 December 1938, both the Nansen Office and High Commission were dissolved and replaced by the Office of the High Commissioner for Refugees under the Protection of the League.[11] This coincided with the flight of several hundred thousand Spanish Republicans to France after their defeat by the Nationalists in 1939 in the Spanish Civil War.[22]

The conflict and political instability during World War II led to massive numbers of refugees (see World War II evacuation and expulsion). In 1943, the Allies created the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA) to provide aid to areas liberated from Axis powers, including parts of Europe and China. By the end of the War, Europe had more than 40 million refugees.[23] UNRRA was involved in returning over seven million refugees, then commonly referred to as displaced persons or DPs, to their country of origin and setting up displaced persons camps for one million refugees who refused to be repatriated. Even two years after the end of War, some 850,000 people still lived in DP camps across Western Europe.[24] After the establishment of Israel in 1948, Israel accepted more than 650,000 refugees by 1950. By 1953, over 250,000 refugees were still in Europe, most of them old, infirm, crippled, or otherwise disabled.

Post-World War II population transfers[edit]

Russian refugees near Stalingrad, 1942

After the Soviet armed forces captured eastern Poland from the Germans in 1944, the Soviets unilaterally declared a new frontier between the Soviet Union and Poland approximately at the Curzon Line, despite the protestations from the Polish government-in-exile in London and the western Allies at the Teheran Conference and the Yalta Conference of February 1945. After the German surrender on 7 May 1945, the Allies occupied the remainder of Germany, and the Berlin declaration of 5 June 1945 confirmed the division of Allied-occupied Germany according to the Yalta Conference, which stipulated the continued existence of the German Reich as a whole, which would include its eastern territories as of 31 December 1937. This did not impact on Poland's eastern border, and Stalin refused to be removed from these eastern Polish territories.

In the last months of World War II, about five million German civilians from the German provinces of East Prussia, Pomerania and Silesia fled the advance of the Red Army from the east and became refugees in Mecklenburg, Brandenburg and Saxony. Since the spring of 1945 the Poles had been forcefully expelling the remaining German population in these provinces. When the Allies met in Potsdam on 17 July 1945 at the Potsdam Conference, a chaotic refugee situation faced the occupying powers. The Potsdam Agreement, signed on 2 August 1945, defined the Polish western border as that of 1937, (Article VIII)[25] placing one fourth of Germany's territory under the Provisional Polish administration. Article XII ordered that the remaining German populations in Poland, Czechoslovakia and Hungary be transferred west in an "orderly and humane" manner.[25] (See Flight and expulsion of Germans (1944–50).)

Although not approved by Allies at Potsdam, hundreds of thousands of ethnic Germans living in Yugoslavia and Romania were deported to slave labour in the Soviet Union, to Allied-occupied Germany, and subsequently to the German Democratic Republic (East Germany), Austria and the Federal Republic of Germany (West Germany). This entailed the largest population transfer in history. In all 15 million Germans were affected, and more than two million perished during the expulsions of the German population.[26][27][28][29][30] (See Flight and expulsion of Germans (1944–1950).) Between the end of War and the erection of the Berlin Wall in 1961, more than 563,700 refugees from East Germany traveled to West Germany for asylum from the Soviet occupation.

During the same period, millions of former Russian citizens were forcefully repatriated against their will into the USSR.[31] On 11 February 1945, at the conclusion of the Yalta Conference, the United States and United Kingdom signed a Repatriation Agreement with the USSR.[32] The interpretation of this Agreement resulted in the forcible repatriation of all Soviets regardless of their wishes. When the war ended in May 1945, British and United States civilian authorities ordered their military forces in Europe to deport to the Soviet Union millions of former residents of the USSR, including many persons who had left Russia and established different citizenship decades before. The forced repatriation operations took place from 1945 to 1947.[33]

German refugees from East Prussia, 1945

At the end of World War II, there were more than 5 million "displaced persons" from the Soviet Union in Western Europe. About 3 million had been forced laborers (Ostarbeiters)[34] in Germany and occupied territories.[35][36] The Soviet POWs and the Vlasov men were put under the jurisdiction of SMERSH (Death to Spies). Of the 5.7 million Soviet prisoners of war captured by the Germans, 3.5 million had died while in German captivity by the end of the war.[37][38] The survivors on their return to the USSR were treated as traitors (see Order No. 270).[39][40] Over 1.5 million surviving Red Army soldiers imprisoned by the Nazis were sent to the Gulag.[41][42]

Poland and Soviet Ukraine conducted population exchanges following the imposition of a new Poland-Soviet border at the Curzon Line in 1944. About 2,100,000 Poles were expelled west of the new border (see Repatriation of Poles), while about 450,000 Ukrainians were expelled to the east of the new border. The population transfer to Soviet Ukraine occurred from September 1944 to May 1946 (see Repatriation of Ukrainians). A further 200,000 Ukrainians left southeast Poland more or less voluntarily between 1944 and 1945.[43]

The International Refugee Organization (IRO) was founded on 20 April 1946, and took over the functions of the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration, which was shut down in 1947. While the handover was originally planned to take place at the beginning of 1947, it did not occur until July 1947.[44] The International Refugee Organization was a temporary organization of the United Nations (UN), which itself had been founded in 1945, with a mandate to largely finish the UNRRA's work of repatriating or resettling European refugees. It was dissolved in 1952 after resettling about one million refugees.[45] The definition of a refugee at this time was an individual with either a Nansen passport or a "Certificate of identity" issued by the International Refugee Organization.

The Constitution of the International Refugee Organization, adopted by the United Nations General Assembly on 15 December 1946, specified the agency's field of operations. Controversially, this defined "persons of German ethnic origin" who had been expelled, or were to be expelled from their countries of birth into the postwar Germany, as individuals who would "not be the concern of the Organization." This excluded from its purview a group that exceeded in number all the other European displaced persons put together. Also, because of disagreements between the Western allies and the Soviet Union, the IRO only worked in areas controlled by Western armies of occupation.

UN Refugee Agency[edit]

UNHCR tents at a refugee camp following episodes of xenophobic violence and rioting in South Africa, 2008
Refugee camp in the Democratic Republic of the Congo

Headquartered in Geneva, Switzerland, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) was established on 14 December 1950. It protects and supports refugees at the request of a government or the United Nations and assists in providing durable solutions, such as return or resettlement. All refugees in the world are under UNHCR mandate except Palestinian refugees, who fled the current state of Israel between 1947 and 1949, as a result of the 1948 Palestine War. These refugees and their descendants are assisted by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA). However, Palestinian Arabs who fled the West Bank and Gaza after 1949 (for example, during the 1967 Six Day war) are under the jurisdiction of the UNHCR. Moreover, the UNHCR also provides protection and assistance to other categories of displaced persons: asylum seekers, refugees who returned home voluntarily but still need help rebuilding their lives, local civilian communities directly affected by large refugee movements, stateless people and so-called internally displaced people (IDPs), as well as people in refugee-like and IDP-like situations.

The agency is mandated to lead and co-ordinate international action to protect refugees and to resolve refugee problems worldwide. Its primary purpose is to safeguard the rights and well-being of refugees. It strives to ensure that everyone can exercise the right to seek asylum and find safe refuge in another state or territory and to offer "durable solutions" to refugees and refugee hosting countries.

Acute and temporary protection[edit]

Refugee camp[edit]

For over 30 years, several tens of thousands of Sahrawi refugees have been living in the region of Tindouf, Algeria, in the heart of the desert.
A camp in Guinea for refugees from Sierra Leone
Erstaufnahmelager Jenfelder Moorpark
Main article: Refugee camp

A refugee camp is a place built by governments or NGOs (such as the Red Cross) to receive refugees, internally displaced persons or sometimes also other migrants. It is usually designed to offer acute and temporary accommodation and services and any more permanent facilities and structures often banned. People may stay in these camps for many years, receiving emergency food, education and medical aid until it is safe enough to return to their country of origin. There, refugees are at risk of disease, child soldier and terrorist recruitment, and physical and sexual violence. There are estimated to be 700 refugee camp locations worldwide.[46]

Urban refugee[edit]

Main article: Urban refugee

Not all refugees who are supported by the UNHCR live in refugee camps. A significant number, actually more than half, live in urban settings,[47] such as the ~60,000 Iraqi refugees in Damascus (Syria),[48] and the ~30,000 Sudanese refugees in Cairo (Egypt).[49]

Durable solutions[edit]

The residency status in the host country whilst under temporary UNHCR protection is very uncertain as refugees are only granted temporary visas that have have to be regularly renewed. Rather than only safeguarding the rights and basic well-being of refugees in the camps or in urban settings on a temporary basis the UNHCR's ultimate goal is to find one of the three durable solutions for refugees: integration, repatriation, resettlement.

Integration and naturalisation[edit]

Main article: Naturalization

It is difficult to quantify the number of refugees who settled and integrated in their first country of asylum and only the number of naturalisations can give an indication. In 2014 Tanzania granted citizenship to 162,000 refugees from Burundi and in 1982 to 32,000 Rwandan refugees.[50] Mexico naturalised 6,200 Guatemalan refugees in 2001.[51] In the context of the Arab-Israeli conflict, the State of Israel has guaranteed asylum and citizenship to Jewish refugees. Many countries, such as Syria and Kenya, rule out the integration of refugees in their country.

Voluntary return[edit]

Main article: Voluntary return

In the last couple of years parts of or even whole refugee populations were able to return to their home countries: e.g. 120,000 Congolese refugees returned from the Republic of Congo to the DRC,[52] 30,000 Angolans returned home from the DRC[53] and Botswana, Ivorian refugees returned from Liberia, Afghans from Pakistan, and Iraqis from Syria. In 2013, the governments of Kenya and Somalia also signed a tripartite agreement facilitating the repatriation of refugees from Somalia.[54] The UNHCR and the IOM offer assistance to refugees who want to return voluntarily to their home countries. Many developed countries also have Assisted Voluntary Return (AVR) programmes for asylum seekers who want to go back or were refused asylum.

Third country resettlement[edit]

Resettlement involves the assisted movement of refugees to safe third countries. It is the third durable solution and it can only be considered once the two other solutions have proved impossible.[55][56] The UNHCR has traditionally seen resettlement as the least preferable of the "durable solutions" to refugee situations.[57] However, in April 2000 the then UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Sadako Ogata, stated "Resettlement can no longer be seen as the least-preferred durable solution; in many cases it is the only solution for refugees."[57]

Internally displaced person[edit]

UNHCR's mandate has gradually been expanded to include protecting and providing humanitarian assistance to internally displaced persons (IDPs) and people in IDP-like situations. These are civilians who have been forced to flee their homes, but who have not reached a neighboring country. IDPs may find it hard to receive any form of assistance as they do not fit the legal definition of a refugee under the 1951 Refugee Convention, 1967 Protocol and the 1969 Organization for African Unity Convention, because they have not left their country. UNHCR had missions in Colombia, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Serbia and Montenegro and Ivory Coast to assist and provide services to IDPs. As the nature of war has changed in the last few decades, with more and more internal conflicts replacing interstate wars, the number of IDPs has increased significantly.

Compared to the 19.5 million refugees at the end of 2014, there were 38.2 million (about twice as many) IDPs in the same year.[58]

Comparison between the number of refugees and IDPs who are supported by the UNHCR between 2014 and 1998.[59]
End-year 1998 2000 2002 2004 2006 2008 2010 2012 2014
Refugees 11,480,900 12,129,600 10,594,100 9,574,800 9,877,700 10,489,800 10,549,700 10,498,000 14,385,300
IDPs 5,063,900 5,998,500 4,646,600 5,426,500 12,794,300 14,442,200 14,697,900 17,670,400 32,274,600

Getting refugee status[edit]

There is a large difference between being a forcibly displaced person, i.e. having fled ones country of origin, and being granted refugee status in the country of asylum - even though both are often interchangeably called "refugees". This is because the term refugee is often used in two different contexts: 1) in everyday usage it refers to a displaced person who flees their home or country of origin, 2) in a more specific context it refers to a displaced person who was given refugee status in the country of asylum. In between these two stages the person may have been an asylum seeker.

Seeking asylum[edit]

Main article: Asylum seeker

An asylum seeker is a displaced person or migrant who formally seeks protection or the right to remain in another country and who is waiting for a decision on this formal application, which is also called refugee status determination. Once the decision was made the asylum seeker, will either be given refugee status and can stay, or will be refused asylum and has to leave. An asylum seeker is not necessarily a refugee, in the legal sense, and may never be granted asylum and thus not given refugee status; likewise a displaced person who would legally be entitled to refugee status may never apply for asylum, or may not be allowed to apply in the country they fled to and thus not be an asylum seeker.

Quota refugees do not need to apply for asylum on arrival as they were selected for resettlement by third countries and already went through the refugee status determination process in the first country of asylum.

Refugee status determination[edit]

In order to be given refugee status a displaced person has to go through a Refugee Status Determination (RSD) process, which is conducted by the government of the country of asylum or the UNHCR, and based on international, regional or national law.[60] There is no specific method mandated for RSD (apart from the commitment to the 1951 Refugee Convention) and it is subject to the overall efficacy of the country’s internal administrative and judicial system as well as the characteristics of the refugee flow to which the country responds. This lack of a procedural direction could create a situation where political and strategic interests override humanitarian considerations in the RSD process.[61] There are also no fixed interpretations of the elements in the Refugee Convention and countries may interpret them differently (see also refugee roulette). Ideally the government of each individual country should conduct RSDs in order to enable the UNHCR to remain independent and impartial. However, in 2013, the UNHCR conducted them in more than 50 countries and co-conducted them parallel to or jointly with governments in another 20 countries, which made it the second largest RSD body in the world[60]

There is one exception to the RSD process: younger Palestinian and Sahrawi refugees have refugee status without having fled their home country themselves. They inherited the refugee status from their ancestors who were the ones forced to migrate.

Refugee status[edit]

Only after the state, territory or the UNHCR, wherever the application was made, has recognised the protection needs, the asylum seeker will be officially referred to as a refugee in the more specific context and enjoys refugee status. This carries certain rights and obligations according to the legislation of the receiving country. An asylum seeker will be granted asylum, i.e. given refugee or subsidiary protection status, when the country of asylum is a signatory to the 1951 Refugee convention and agrees that the persons circumstances fall into the definition of the country's and international asylum criteria. Refugee status is also given to quota refugees.

Refugee rights[edit]

Main article: Refugee law

Refugee rights encompass both customary law, peremptory norms, and international legal instruments and include:

These documents and declarations include the following rights and obligations for refugees:

Right of return[edit]

Main article: Right of return

Even in a supposedly "post-conflict" environment, it is not a simple process for refugees to return home.[63] The UN Pinheiro Principles are guided by the idea that people not only have the right to return home, but also the right to the same property.[63] It seeks to return to the pre-conflict status quo and ensure that no one profits from violence. Yet this is a very complex issue and every situation is different; conflict is a highly transformative force and the pre-war status-quo can never be reestablished completely, even if that were desirable (it may have caused the conflict in the first place).[63] Therefore, the following are of particular importance to the right to return:[63]

  • may never have had property (e.g. in Afghanistan);
  • cannot access what property they have (Colombia, Guatemala, South Africa and Sudan);
  • ownership is unclear as families have expanded or split and division of the land becomes an issue;
  • death of owner may leave dependents without clear claim to the land;
  • people settled on the land know it is not theirs but have nowhere else to go (as in Colombia, Rwanda and Timor-Leste); and
  • have competing claims with others, including the state and its foreign or local business partners (as in Aceh, Angola, Colombia, Liberia and Sudan).

Refugees who were resettled to a third country will likely lose the indefinite leave to remain in this country if they return to their country of origin or the country of first asylum.

Right to non-refoulement[edit]

Main article: Non-refoulement

Non-refoulement is the right not to be returned to a place of persecution and is the foundation for international refugee law, as outlined in the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees.[64] The right to non-refoulement is distinct from the right to asylum. In order to respect the right to asylum states must not deport genuine refugees. In contrast, the right to non-refoulement allows states to transfer genuine refugees to third party countries with respectable human rights records. The portable procedural model, proposed by political philosopher Andy Lamey, emphasizes the right to non-refoulement by guaranteeing refugees three procedural rights (to a verbal hearing, to legal counsel, and to judicial review of detention decisions) and ensuring those rights in the constitution.[65] This proposal attempts to strike a balance between the interest of national governments and the interests of refugees.

Right to family reunification[edit]

Main article: Family reunification

Family reunification (which can also be a form of resettlement) is a recognized reason for immigration in many countries. Divided families have the right to be reunited if a family member with permanent right of residency applies for the reunification and can prove the people on the application were a family unit before arrival and wish to live as a family unit since separation. If application is successful this enables the rest of the family to immigrate to that country as well.

Right to travel[edit]

Those states that signed the Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees are obliged to issue travel documents (i.e. "Convention Travel Document") to refugees lawfully residing in their territory.[66] It is a valid travel document in place of a passport, however, it cannot be used to travel to the country of origin, i.e. from where the refugee fled.

Restriction of onward movement[edit]

Once refugees or asylum seekers have found a safe place and protection of a state or territory outside their territory of origin they are discouraged from leaving again and seeking protection in another country. If they do move onward into a second country of asylum this movement is also called "irregular movement" by the UNHCR (see also asylum shopping). UNHCR support in the second country may be less than in the first country and they can even be returned to the first country.[67]

International attitude to refugees[edit]

World Refugee Day[edit]

Main article: World Refugee Day

World Refugee Day occurs on 20 June. The day was created in 2000 by a special United Nations General Assembly Resolution. 20 June had previously been commemorated as African Refugee Day in a number of African countries.

In the United Kingdom World Refugee Day is celebrated as part of Refugee week. Refugee Week is a nationwide festival designed to promote understanding and to celebrate the cultural contributions of refugees, and features many events such as music, dance and theatre.

In the Roman Catholic Church, the World Day of Migrants and Refugees is celebrated in January each year. It was instituted in 1914 by Pope Pius X.

Refugee issues[edit]

Protracted displacement[edit]

Displacement is a long lasting reality for most refugees. Two-thirds of all refugees around the world have been displaced for over three years, which is known as being in 'protracted displacement'. 50% of refugees - around 10 million people - have been displaced for over ten years.[68] Research from the Overseas Development Institute has found that aid programmes for refugees need to move from short-term models of assistance (such as food or cash handouts) to more sustainable long-term programmes that help refugees become more self-reliant. This can involve tackling difficult legal and economic environments, by improving social services, job opportunities and laws.[68]

Medical problems[edit]

Refugee children from Syria at a clinic in Ramtha, Jordan, August 2013

Apart from physical wounds or starvation, a large percentage of refugees develop symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or depression. These long-term mental problems can severely impede the functionality of the person in everyday situations; it makes matters even worse for displaced persons who are confronted with a new environment and challenging situations. They are also at high risk for suicide.[69]

Among other symptoms, post-traumatic stress disorder involves anxiety, over-alertness, sleeplessness, chronic fatigue syndrome, motor difficulties, failing short term memory, amnesia, nightmares and sleep-paralysis. Flashbacks are characteristic to the disorder: the patient experiences the traumatic event, or pieces of it, again and again. Depression is also characteristic for PTSD-patients and may also occur without accompanying PTSD.

PTSD was diagnosed in 34.1% of Palestinian children, most of whom were refugees, males, and working. The participants were 1,000 children aged 12 to 16 years from governmental, private, and United Nations Relief Work Agency UNRWA schools in East Jerusalem and various governorates in the West Bank.[70]

Another study showed that 28.3% of Bosnian refugee women had symptoms of PTSD three or four years after their arrival in Sweden. These women also had significantly higher risks of symptoms of depression, anxiety, and psychological distress than Swedish-born women. For depression the odds ratio was 9.50 among Bosnian women.[71]

A study by the Department of Pediatrics and Emergency Medicine at the Boston University School of Medicine demonstrated that twenty percent of Sudanese refugee minors living in the United States had a diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder. They were also more likely to have worse scores on all the Child Health Questionnaire subscales.[72]

Many more studies illustrate the problem. One meta-study was conducted by the psychiatry department of Oxford University at Warneford Hospital in the United Kingdom. Twenty surveys were analyzed, providing results for 6,743 adult refugees from seven countries. In the larger studies, 9% were diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and 5% with major depression, with evidence of much psychiatric co-morbidity. Five surveys of 260 refugee children from three countries yielded a prevalence of 11% for post-traumatic stress disorder. According to this study, refugees resettled in Western countries could be about ten times more likely to have PTSD than age-matched general populations in those countries. Worldwide, tens of thousands of refugees and former refugees resettled in Western countries probably have post-traumatic stress disorder.[73]


Refugee populations consist of people who are terrified and are away from familiar surroundings. There can be instances of exploitation at the hands of enforcement officials, citizens of the host country, and even United Nations peacekeepers. Instances of human rights violations, child labor, mental and physical trauma/torture, violence-related trauma, and sexual exploitation, especially of children, are not entirely unknown. In many refugee camps in three war-torn West African countries, Sierra Leone, Guinea, and Liberia, young girls were found to be exchanging sex for money, a handful of fruit, or even a bar of soap. Most of these girls were between 13 and 18 years of age. In most cases, if the girls had been forced to stay, they would have been forced into marriage. They became pregnant around the age of 15 on average. This happened as recently as in 2001. Parents tended to turn a blind eye because sexual exploitation had become a "mechanism of survival" in these camps.[74]

Security threats[edit]

Very rarely, refugees have been used and recruited as refugee warriors,[75] and the humanitarian aid directed at refugee relief has very rarely been utilized to fund the acquisition of arms.[76] Support from a refugee-receiving state has rarely been used to enable refugees to mobilize militarily, enabling conflict to spread across borders.[77]

Refugee crisis[edit]

Main article: Refugee crisis

Refugee crisis can refer to movements of large groups of displaced persons, who could be either internally displaced persons, refugees or other migrants. It can also refer to incidents in the country of origin or departure, to large problems whilst on the move or even after arrival in a safe country that involve large groups of displaced persons.

Back in 2006, there were 8.4 million UNHCR registered refugees worldwide, which was the lowest number since 1980.[78] At the end of 2015, there were 16.1 million refugees worldwide. When adding the 5.2 million Palestinian refugees who are under UNRWA's mandate there are 21.3 million refugees worldwide. The overall forced displacement worldwide has reached to a total of 65.3 million displaced persons in the end of 2015, while it was 59.5 million 12 months earlier. One in every 113 people globally is an asylum seeker or a refugee. In 2015, the total number of displaced people worldwide, including refugees, asylum seekers and internally displaced persons, was at its highest level on record.[79]

Among them, Syrian refugees were the largest group in 2015 at 4.9 million.[80] In 2014, Syrians had overtaken Afghan refugees (2.7 million), who had been the largest refugee group for three decades.[81] Somalis were the third largest group with one million. The countries hosting the largest number of refugees according to UNHCR are Turkey (2.5 million), Pakistan (1.6 million), Lebanon (1.1 million) and Iran (1 million).[80] As for the countries that have the largest numbers of internally displaced people are Colombia at 6.9, Syria at 6.6 million and Iraq at 4.4 million.

Children formed a 51% of refugees in 2015 and most of them were separated from their parents or travelling alone. 86 per cent of the refugees under UNHCR's mandate in 2015 were in low- and middle-income countries that themselves are close to situations of conflict.[82] Research has found that refugees have historically tended to flee to nearby countries with ethnic kin populations and a history of accepting other co-ethnic refugees.[83] The religious, sectarian and denominational affiliation has been an important feature of debate in refugee-hosting nations.[84]

Refugees and people in refugee-like situations by region between 2014 and 2008
Region (UN major area) 2014














Africa 4,126,800 3,377,700 3,068,300 2,924,100 2,408,700 2,300,100 2,332,900
Asia 7,942,100 6,317,500 5,060,100 5,104,100 5,715,800 5,620,500 5,706,400
Europe 1,500,500 1,152,800 1,522,100 1,534,400 1,587,400 1,628,100 1,613,400
Latin America & Caribbean 352,700 382,000 380,700 377,800 373,900 367,400 350,300
Northern America 416,400 424,000 425,800 429,600 430,100 444,900 453,200
Oceania 46,800 45,300 41,000 34,800 33,800 35,600 33,600
Total 14,385,300 11,699,300 10,498,000 10,404,800 10,549,700 10,396,600 10,489,800

See also[edit]


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Further reading[edit]

Andy Lamey talks about the refugee crisis on Bookbits radio.
  • Betts, Alexander (2009). Protection by persuasion: international cooperation in the refugee regime. Ithaca: Cornell University Press. 
  • Boswell, Christina (2005). The ethics of refugee policy. Aldershot: Ashgate. 
  • Gibney, Matthew J. (2004). The ethics and politics of asylum: liberal democracy and the response to refugees. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 
  • Goodwin-Gill, Guy S.; McAdam, Jane (2007). The refugee in international law. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 
  • Hathaway, James C. (1997). Reconceiving international refugee law. The Hague: Nijhoff. 
  • Hathaway, James C. (2005). The rights of refugees under international law. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 
  • Helton, Arthur C. (2002). The price of indifference – refugees and humanitarian action in the new century. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 
  • Kenyon Lischer, Sarah (2008). Dangerous sanctuaries. Ithaca: Cornell University Press. 
  • Loescher, Gil (1993). Beyond charity – international cooperation and the global refugee crisis. New York: Oxford University Press. 
  • Loescher, Gil; Betts, Alexander; Milnamandaer, James (2008). NHCR: the politics and practice of refugee protection into the twenty-first century. London: Routledge. 
  • Martin, Susan F. (2005). The uprooted – improving humanitarian responses to forced migration. Lanham, Maryland: Lexington Books. 
  • McAdam, Jane (2007). Complementary protection. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 
  • Milner, James (2009). The politics of asylum in Africa. London: Palgrave MacMillan. 
  • Nicholson, Frances; Twomey, Patrick (1999). Refugee rights and realities – evolving international concepts and regimes. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 
  • Riedel, Gilles Giacca & Christophe Golay (2014). Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights Contemporary Issues and Challenges Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights in International Law. Contemporary Issues and Challenges. Oxford University Press. p. 560. ISBN 9780199685974.  Site
  • Rutherford, Jonathan (2005). The asylum issue. London: Barefoot. ISBN 9781905007141. 
  • Stedman, Stephen John; Tanner, Fred (2003). Refugee manipulation – war, politics, and the abuse of human suffering. Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution Press. 
  • UNHCR (2001). Refugee protection: A Guide to International Refugee Law UNHCR, Inter-Parliamentary Union
  • Zolberg, Aristide R.; Suhrke, Astri; Aguayo, Sergio (1989). Escape from violence – conflict and the refugee crisis in the developing world. New York: Oxford University Press. 

External links[edit]