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Introduction to refugee issues Chapter 1 PDF Print E-mail


People moving across borders are classified into many categories, such as economic migrants -- persons who voluntarily abandon their homes to earn a better wage -- or as political refugees forced to leave for their own safety.

In practice the distinction between refugees and migrants is highly problematic. International law attempts to define the point at which the push factors motivating people to leave their home, often under enormous stress and fear, become so strong that their migration should be seen as forced.

Who is a refugee?

A refugee is a person who "owing to a 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 to or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country…"

Article 1, The 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees

The most important parts of the refugee definition are:

· Refugees have to be outside their country of origin;

· The reason for their flight has to be due to a ‘fear of persecution’;

· The fear of persecution has to be ‘well-founded’;

· The persecution has to result from one or more of the five grounds listed in the definition: race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion;

· They have to be unwilling or unable to seek protection in their own country.

How is the term 'refugee' misused?

The term has slipped into common usage to cover a range of people, including those displaced by natural disaster or environmental change. Refugees are often confused with other migrants.

In international law, the term 'refugee' has a specific meaning and should not be confused with 'economic refugee'.

Economic Refugee

This term is not correct. The accurate description of people who leave their country or place of residence because they want to seek a better life is 'economic migrant'.

Economic Migrant

Migrants make a conscious choice to leave their country of origin and, for the most part, can return there without a problem. If things do not work out as they had hoped or if they get homesick, it is safe for them to return home. However there are also many cases of persons who flee their country because the economic situation is so negative. In these instances, once they leave, economic migrants may not be able to return to their home country due to unfulfilled expectations of prosperity or due to a persistently poor economic environment.

Irregular Migrant

Irregular migrants are people who enter a country without meeting legal requirements for entry or residence. On the other hand, due to their situation, refugees often arrive to countries with very little and without any personal identification documents. Often governments refuse to issue passports to known political dissidents or imprison them if they apply. Refugees may not be able to obtain the necessary documents when trying to escape and may have no choice but to resort to illegal means of escape. Therefore, although the only means of escape for some may be illegal entry and/or the use of false documentation, if the person has a well-founded fear of persecution they should be viewed as a refugee and not labeled an ‘irregular migrant'.

The Refugee Convention says that states should not impose penalties on individuals coming directly from a territory where their life or freedom is threatened on account of their illegal entry (Article 31). Furthermore, under Article 14 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, everyone has the right to seek and enjoy in other countries protection from persecution.

And asylum seekers?

Refugees should also not be confused with asylum seekers - the two terms have different legal definitions. For the difference between refugees and asylum seekers, as well as the definition of other people in need of different forms of international protection, please see the following section on what other people are of concern to the UNHCR.

Stateless people

A further category is that of stateless people who have no nationality, a fundamental human right denied to possibly as many as 12 million people worldwide. Stateless people can also be refugees, if they fit the 1951 Convention criteria.

What makes a refugee different?

Refugees are forced to leave their countries because they have been persecuted or have a well-founded fear of persecution. Refugees run away. They often do not know where they will end up. Refugees rarely have the chance to make plans for their departure such as packing their personal belongings or saying farewell to loved ones. Many refugees have experienced severe trauma or have been tortured.

Why leave home?

The 1951 Convention's definition of refugees anticipated relatively small, persecuted groups, such as political dissidents from the former Soviet Union. Similar political and religious persecution now accounts for refugees from countries such as Iran and China.

Armed conflict displaces larger groups of people, especially where exclusion of ethnic, racial or religious groups is a direct aim of a war. Extreme examples of ethnic cleansing have been seen in Rwanda, between the Hutus and Tutsis, and in the former Yugoslavia, between Serbs, Bosnians and Croats.

Refugee movement is also provoked inadvertently as a side effect of war, through people being in the wrong place, caught up in violence. Recent conflicts contain elements of both circumstances: for example the insurgency in Iraq forced mass migration partly from the collapse of public security and partly by mutual fears between Shia and Sunni Muslims.

Last Updated ( Thursday, 09 December 2010 21:12 )

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