The definition of a refugee comes from the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees and its 1967 Protocol (“Refugees Convention”). This treaty forms part of international law. It was drafted by country representatives at the United Nations and presented for ratification by countries in 1951. A refugee is a person who is seeking asylum in a foreign country in order to escape persecution, war, terrorism, extreme poverty, famines, and natural disaster. Some regional legal instruments further include those seeking to escape generalized violence in the definition of a refugee. Those who desire refugee status are sometimes known as asylum seekers and the practice of accepting such refugees is that of offering political asylum. The most common asylum claims to industrialized countries are based upon political and religious grounds. According to the 1951 United Nations Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, 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 their nationality, and is unable to or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail him/herself of the protection of that country. ”
The concept of a refugee was expanded by the Conventions’ 1967 Protocol and by regional conventions in Africa and Latin America to include persons who had fled war or other violence in their home country.
The Refugees Convention defines a refugee as:
“Any 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/her nationality and is unable, or owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself/herself of the protection of that country.”
The important parts of this definition are:
- that the person has to be outside their country of origin;
- the reason for their flight has to be a fear of persecution;
- the persecution has to result from one or more of 5 grounds (race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion);
- this fear of persecution has to be well founded; and
- the person is unwilling or unable to seek the protection of their country.
Refugee was defined as a legal group in response to the large numbers of people fleeing Eastern Europe following World War II. The lead international agency coordinating refugee protection is the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), which counted 8.4 million refugees worldwide at the beginning of 2006. This was the lowest number since 1980. The major exception are the 4.3 million Palestinian refugees under the authority of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), who are the only group to be granted refugee status to the descendants of refugees according to the above definition. The U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants gives the world total as 12,019,700 refugees and estimates there are over 34,000,000 displaced by war, including internally displaced persons, who remain within the same national borders.