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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[6] if they formally make a claim for asylum.[7] 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, the UNRWA, which is solely responsible for supporting the large majority of Palestinian refugees.[8]

Refugees in 2017[[CITE|5|http://reporting.unhcr.org/population]]
Total population
c.25.4 million
(19.9 million under UNHCR's mandate and 5.4 million under UNRWA's mandate; the total number of forcibly displaced persons is 68.5 million)
Regions with significant populations
Sub-Saharan Africa6.236 million
Europe and North Asia6.088 million
South/East Asia and Oceania4.153 million
West Asia and North Africa2.653 million
North/South Americas484,261

Etymology and usage

Similar terms in other languages have described an event marking migration of a specific population from a place of origin, such as the biblical account of Israelites fleeing from Assyrian conquest (circa 740 BCE), or the asylum found by the prophet Muhammad and his emigrant companions with helpers in Yathrib (later Medina) after they fled from persecution in Mecca.[9][10] 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 Protestant Huguenots looking for a safe place against Catholic persecution after the first Edict of Fontainebleau in 1540.[11][12] The word appeared in the English language when French Huguenots fled to Britain in large numbers after the 1685 Edict of Fontainebleau (the revocation of the 1598 Edict of Nantes) in France and the 1687 Declaration of Indulgence in England and Scotland.[13] 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.[14]

The first modern definition of international refugee status came about under the League of Nations in 1921 from the Commission for Refugees. Following World War II, and in response to the large numbers of people fleeing Eastern Europe, the UN 1951 Refugee Convention adopted (in Article 1.A.2) the following definition of "refugee" to apply to any person who:[6]

"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."[6]

In 1967, this legal concept was expanded by the UN Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees.

The Convention Governing the Specific Aspects of Refugee Problems in Africa expanded the 1951 definition, which the Organization of African Unity adopted in 1969:

"Every person who, owing to external aggression, occupation, foreign domination or events seriously disturbing public order in either part or the whole of his country of origin or nationality, is compelled to leave his place of habitual residence in order to seek refuge in another place outside his country of origin or nationality."[15]

The 1984 regional, non-binding Latin-American Cartagena Declaration on Refugees includes:

"persons who have fled their country because their lives, safety or freedom have been threatened by generalized violence, foreign aggression, internal conflicts, massive violation of human rights or other circumstances which have seriously disturbed public order."[16]

As of 2011, the UNHCR itself, in addition to the 1951 definition, recognizes persons as refugees:

"who are outside their country of nationality or habitual residence and unable to return there owing to serious and indiscriminate threats to life, physical integrity or freedom resulting from generalized violence or events seriously disturbing public order."[17]

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.


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 border crossing to require that people provide identification.

The term "refugee" sometime applies to people who might fit the definition outlined by the 1951 Convention, were it 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.[18] The Balkan Wars of 1912–1913 caused 800,000 people to leave their homes.[19] Various groups of people were officially designated refugees beginning in World War I.

League of Nations

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),[20] p. 1. 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.[21]

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.[22] 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.

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 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 (1923).[1]

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.[23] Most European refugees (principally Jews and Slavs) fleeing the Nazis and the Soviet Union were barred from going to the United States until after World War II.[24]

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.[25]

1933 (rise of Nazism) to 1944

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 [2] by the Reich Citizenship Law of 1935.[26] 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).[3]

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.[27] Between 1933 and 1939, about 200,000 Jews fleeing Nazism were able to find refuge in France,[28] while at least 55,000 Jews were able to find refuge in Palestine[29] p. 326 n. 6. 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.[22] 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.[30]

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.[31] 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. DP Camps in Europe Intro [148] , from: DPs Europe's Displaced Persons, 1945–1951 by Mark Wyman 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

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) Agreements of the Berlin (Potsdam) Conference [149] 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.Agreements of the Berlin (Potsdam) Conference [150] (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.[32][33][34][35][36] (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.[37] On 11 February 1945, at the conclusion of the Yalta Conference, the United States and United Kingdom signed a Repatriation Agreement with the USSR.[38] 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.[39]

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)[40] in Germany and occupied territories.[41][42] 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.[43][44] The survivors on their return to the USSR were treated as traitors (see Order No. 270).[45] Over 1.5 million surviving Red Army soldiers imprisoned by the Nazis were sent to the Gulag.[46]

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.[47]

Due to the report of the U.S. Committee for Refugees (1995), 10 to 15 percent of 7,5 million Azerbaijani population were refugees or displaced people.[48] Most of them were 228,840 refugee people of Azerbaijan who fled from Armenia in 1988 as a result of deportation policy of Armenia against ethnic Azerbaijanis.[49]

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.[50] 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.[51] 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.

Refugee studies

With the occurrence of major instances of diaspora and forced migration, the study of their causes and implications has emerged as a legitimate interdisciplinary area of research, and began to rise by mid to late 20th century, after World War II. Although significant contributions had been made before, the latter half of the 20th century saw the establishment of institutions dedicated to the study of refugees, such as the Association for the Study of the World Refugee Problem, which was closely followed by the founding of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. In particular, the 1981 volume of the International Migration Review defined refugee studies as "a comprehensive, historical, interdisciplinary and comparative perspective which focuses on the consistencies and patterns in the refugee experience."[52] Following its publishing, the field saw a rapid increase in academic interest and scholarly inquiry, which has continued to the present. Most notably in 1988, the Journal of Refugee Studies was established as the field's first major interdisciplinary journal.[53]

The emergence of refugee studies as a distinct field of study has been criticized by scholars due to terminological difficulty. Since no universally accepted definition for the term "refugee" exists, the academic respectability of the policy-based definition, as outlined in the 1951 Refugee Convention, is disputed. Additionally, academics have critiqued the lack of a theoretical basis of refugee studies and dominance of policy-oriented research. In response, scholars have attempted to steer the field toward establishing a theoretical groundwork of refugee studies through "situating studies of particular refugee (and other forced migrant) groups in the theories of cognate areas (and major disciplines), [providing] an opportunity to use the particular circumstances of refugee situations to illuminate these more general theories and thus participate in the development of social science, rather than leading refugee studies into an intellectual cul-de-sac."[54] Thus, the term refugee in the context of refugee studies can be referred to as "legal or descriptive rubric", encompassing socioeconomic backgrounds, personal histories, psychological analyses, and spiritualities.[54]

UN Refugee Agency

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 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

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.[55]

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,[56] such as the ~60,000 Iraqi refugees in Damascus (Syria),[57] and the ~30,000 Sudanese refugees in Cairo (Egypt).[58]

Durable solutions

The residency status in the host country whilst under temporary UNHCR protection is very uncertain as refugees are only granted temporary visas that 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.[59]

Integration and naturalisation

Local integration is aiming at providing the refugee with the permanent right to stay in the country of asylum, including, in some situations, as a naturalized citizen. It follows the formal granting of refugee status by the country of asylum. 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.[60] Mexico naturalised 6,200 Guatemalan refugees in 2001.[61]

Voluntary return

Voluntary return of refugees into their country of origin, in safety and dignity, is based on their free will and their informed decision. 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,[62] 30,000 Angolans returned home from the DRC[62] 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.[63] 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

Third country resettlement involves the assisted transfer of refugees from the country in which they have sought asylum to a safe third country that has agreed to admit them as refugees. This can be for permanent settlement or limited to a certain number of years. It is the third durable solution and it can only be considered once the two other solutions have proved impossible.[64][65] The UNHCR has traditionally seen resettlement as the least preferable of the "durable solutions" to refugee situations.[66] 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."[66]

Internally displaced person

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 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. 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.

Comparison between the number of refugees and IDPs who are supported by the UNHCR between 1998 and 2014.[[CITE|67|https://openlibrary.org/search?q=UNHCR%20%288%20December%202015%29.%20%22UNHCR%20Statistical%20Yearbo]]

Refugee status

The term refugee is often used in different contexts: in everyday usage it refers to a forcibly displaced person who has fled their country of origin; in a more specific context it refers to such a person who was, on top of that, granted refugee status in the country the person fled to. Even more exclusive is the Convention refugee status which is given only to persons who fall within the refugee definition of the 1951 Convention and the 1967 Protocol.

To receive refugee status, a person must have applied for asylum, making them—while waiting for a decision—an asylum seeker. However, a displaced person otherwise legally entitled to refugee status may never apply for asylum, or may not be allowed to apply in the country they fled to and thus may not have official asylum seeker status.

Once a displaced person is granted refugee status they enjoy certain rights as agreed in the 1951 Refugee convention. Not all countries have signed and ratified this convention and some countries do not have a legal procedure for dealing with asylum seekers.

Seeking asylum

An asylum seeker is a displaced person or immigrant who has formally sought the protection of the state they fled to as well as the right to remain in this country and who is waiting for a decision on this formal application. An asylum seeker may have applied for Convention refugee status or for complementary forms of protection. Asylum is thus a category that includes different forms of protection. Which form of protection is offered depends on the legal definition that best describes the asylum seeker's reasons to flee. Once the decision was made the asylum seeker receives either Convention refugee status or a complementary form of protection, and can stay in the country—or is refused asylum, and then often has to leave. Only after the state, territory or the UNHCR—wherever the application was made—recognises the protection needs does the asylum seeker officially receive refugee status. This carries certain rights and obligations, according to the legislation of the receiving country.

Quota refugees do not need to apply for asylum on arrival in the third countries as they already went through the UNHCR refugee status determination process whilst being in the first country of asylum and this is usually accepted by the third countries.

Refugee status determination

To receive refugee status, a displaced person must go through a Refugee Status Determination (RSD) process, which is conducted by the government of the country of asylum or the UNHCR, and is based on international, regional or national law.[68] RSD can be done on a case by case basis as well as for whole groups of people. Which of the two processes is used often depends on the size of the influx of displaced persons.

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.[69] There are also no fixed interpretations of the elements in the 1951 Refugee Convention and countries may interpret them differently (see also refugee roulette).

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[68] The UNHCR follows a set of guidelines described in the Handbook and Guidelines on Procedures and Criteria for Determining Refugee Status to determine which individuals are eligible for refugee status.[70]

Refugee rights

Refugee rights encompass both customary law, peremptory norms, and international legal instruments. They include the following rights and obligations for refugees:

Right of return

Even in a supposedly "post-conflict" environment, it is not a simple process for refugees to return home.[71] 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.[71] 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).[71] Therefore, the following are of particular importance to the right to return:[71]

  • 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)

  • 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

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.[72] The right to non-refoulement is distinct from the right to asylum. 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.[73] This proposal attempts to strike a balance between the interest of national governments and the interests of refugees.

Right to 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

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.[4] 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

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.[74]

World Refugee Day

World Refugee Day has occurred annually on 20 June since 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.[75]

In the Roman Catholic Church, the World Day of Migrants and Refugees is celebrated in January each year, since instituted in 1914 by Pope Pius X.[76]


Protracted displacement

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.

The Overseas Development Institute has found that aid programmes 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.[77]

Medical problems

Refugees typically report poorer levels of health, compared to other immigrants and the non-immigrant population.[78]


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.[79]

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.[80]

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.[81]

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.[82]

In a study for the United Kingdom, refugees were found to be 4 percentage points more likely to report a mental health problem compared to the non-immigrant population. This contrasts with the results for other immigrant groups, which were less likely to report a mental health problem compared to the non-immigrant population.[78]

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.[83]


Refugees are often more susceptible to illness for several reasons, including a lack of immunity to local strains of malaria and other diseases. Displacement of a people can create favorable conditions for disease transmission. Refugee camps are typically heavily populated with poor sanitary conditions. The removal of vegetation for space, building materials or firewood also deprives mosquitoes of their natural habitats, leading them to more closely interact with humans.[84] In the 1970s, Afghani refugees that were relocated to Pakistan were going from a country with an effective malaria control strategy, to a country with a less effective system.

The refugee camps were built near rivers or irrigation sites had higher malaria prevalence than refugee camps built on dry lands.[85] The location of the camps lent themselves to better breeding grounds for mosquitoes, and thus a higher likelihood of malaria transmission. Children aged 1–15 were the most susceptible to malaria infection, which is a significant cause of mortality in children younger than 5.[86] Malaria was the cause of 16% of the deaths in refugee children younger than 5 years of age.[87] Malaria is one of the most commonly reported causes of death in refugees and displaced persons. Since 2014, reports of malaria cases in Germany had doubled compared to previous years, with the majority of cases found in refugees from Eritrea.[88]

The World Health Organization recommends that all people in areas that are endemic for malaria use long-lasting insecticide nets.[89] A cohort study found that within refugee camps in Pakistan, insecticide treated bed nets were very useful in reducing malaria cases. A single treatment of the nets with the insecticide permethrin remained protective throughout the 6 month transmission season.[90]

Access to healthcare services

Access to services depends on many factors, including whether a refugee has received official status, is situated within a refugee camp, or is in the process of third country resettlement. The UNHCR recommends integrating access to primary care and emergency health services with the host country in as equitable a manner as possible.[91] Prioritized services include areas of maternal and child health, immunizations, tuberculosis screening and treatment, and HIV/AIDS-related services.[91] Despite inclusive stated policies for refugee access to health care on the international levels, potential barriers to that access include language, cultural preferences, high financial costs, administrative hurdles, and physical distance.[91] Specific barriers and policies related to health service access also emerge based on the host country context. For example, primaquine, an often recommended malaria treatment is not currently licensed for use in Germany and must be ordered from outside the country.[92]

In Canada, barriers to healthcare access include the lack of adequately trained physicians, complex medical conditions of some refugees and the bureaucracy of medical coverage.[93] There are also individual barriers to access such as language and transportation barriers, institutional barriers such as bureaucratic burdens and lack of entitlement knowledge, and systems level barriers such as conflicting policies, racism and physician workforce shortage.[93]

In the US, all officially designated Iraqi refugees had health insurance coverage compared to a little more than half of non-Iraqi immigrants in a Dearborn, Michigan, study.[94] However, greater barriers existed around transportation, language and successful stress coping mechanisms for refugees versus other immigrants,[94] in addition, refugees noted greater medical conditions.[94] The study also found that refugees had higher healthcare utilization rate (92.1%) as compared to the US overall population (84.8%) and immigrants (58.6%) in the study population.[94]

Within Australia, officially designated refugees who qualify for temporary protection and offshore humanitarian refugees are eligible for health assessments, interventions and access to health insurance schemes and trauma-related counseling services.[95] Despite being eligible to access services, barriers include economic constraints around perceived and actual costs carried by refugees.[96] In addition, refugees must cope with a healthcare workforce unaware of the unique health needs of refugee populations.[95][96] Perceived legal barriers such as fear that disclosing medical conditions prohibiting reunification of family members and current policies which reduce assistance programs may also limit access to health care services.[95]

Providing access to healthcare for refugees through integration into the current health systems of host countries may also be difficult when operating in a resource limited setting. In this context, barriers to healthcare access may include political aversion in the host country and already strained capacity of the existing health system.[97] Political aversion to refugee access into the existing health system may stem from the wider issue of refugee resettlement.[97][98] One approach to limiting such barriers is to move from a parallel administrative system in which UNHCR refugees may receive better healthcare than host nationals but is unsustainable financially and politically to that of an integrated care where refugee and host nationals receive equal and more improved care all around.[97] In the 1980s, Pakistan attempted to address Afghan refugee healthcare access through the creation of Basic Health Units inside the camps.[99] Funding cuts closed many of these programs, forcing refugees to seek healthcare from the local government.[99] In response to a protracted refugee situation in the West Nile district, Ugandan officials with UNHCR created an integrative healthcare model for the mostly Sudanese refugee population and Ugandan citizens. Local nationals now access health care in facilities initially created for refugees.[97][100]

One potential argument for limiting refugee access to healthcare is associated with costs with states desire to decrease health expenditure burdens. However, Germany found that restricting refugee access led to an increase actual expenditures relative to refugees which had full access to healthcare services.[101] The legal restrictions on access to health care and the administrative barriers in Germany have been criticized since the 1990s for leading to delayed care, for increasing direct costs and administrative costs of health care, and for shifting the responsibility for care from the less expensive primary care sector to costly treatments for acute conditions in the secondary and tertiary sector.[101][102]


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, have been documented. 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.[103]

Security threats

Very rarely, refugees have been used and recruited as refugee militants or terrorists,[104] and the humanitarian aid directed at refugee relief has very rarely been utilized to fund the acquisition of arms.[105] Support from a refugee-receiving state has rarely been used to enable refugees to mobilize militarily, enabling conflict to spread across borders.[106]

Historically, refugee populations have often been portrayed as a security threat. In the U.S and Europe, there has been much focus on the narrative that terrorists maintain networks amongst transnational, refugee, and migrant populations. This fear has been exaggerated into a modern-day Islamist terrorism Trojan Horse in which terrorists hide among refugees and penetrate host countries.[107] 'Muslim-refugee-as-an-enemy-within' rhetoric is relatively new, but the underlying scapegoating of out-groups for domestic societal problems, fears and ethno-nationalist sentiment is not new.[108] In the 1890s, the influx of Eastern European Jewish refugees to London coupled with the rise of anarchism in the city led to a confluence of threat-perception and fear of the refugee out-group.[109] Populist rhetoric then too propelled debate over migration control and protecting national security.

Cross-national empirical verification, or rejection, of populist suspicion and fear of refugees' threat to national security and terror-related activities is relatively scarce.[110] Case studies suggest that the threat of an Islamist refugee Trojan House is highly exaggerated.[111] Of the 800,000 refugees vetted through the resettlement program in the United States between 2001 and 2016, only five were subsequently arrested on terrorism charges; and 17 of the 600,000 Iraqis and Syrians who arrived in Germany in 2015 were investigated for terrorism.[107] One study found that European jihadists tend to be 'homegrown': over 90% were residents of a European country and 60% had European citizenship.[112] While the statistics do not support the rhetoric, a PEW Research Center survey of ten European countries (Hungary, Poland, Netherlands, Germany, Italy, Sweden, Greece, UK, France, and Spain) released on 11 July 2016, finds that the majority (ranges from 52% to 76%) of respondents in eight countries (Hungary, Poland, Netherlands, Germany, Italy, Sweden, Greece, and UK) think refugees increase the likelihood of terrorism in their country.[113] Since 1975, in the U.S., the risk of dying in a terror attack by a refugee is 1 in 3.6 billion per year;[114] whereas, the odds of dying in a motor vehicle crash are 1 in 113, by state sanctioned execution 1 in 111,439, or by dog attack 1 in 114,622.[115]

In Europe, fear of immigration, Islamification and job and welfare benefits competition has fueled an increase in violence.[116] Immigrants are perceived as a threat to ethno-nationalist identity and increase concerns over criminality and insecurity.[117]

In the PEW survey previously referenced, 50% of respondents believe that refugees are a burden due to job and social benefit competition.[113] When Sweden received over 160,000 asylum seekers in 2015, it was accompanied by 50 attacks against asylum-seekers, which was more than four times the number of attacks that occurred in the previous four years.[107] At the incident level, the 2011 Utøya Norway terror attack by Breivik demonstrates the impact of this threat perception on a country's risk from domestic terrorism, in particular ethno-nationalist extremism. Breivik portrayed himself as a protector of Norwegian ethnic identity and national security fighting against immigrant criminality, competition and welfare abuse and an Islamic takeover.[117]

According to a 2018 study in the Journal of Peace Research, states often resort to anti-refugee violence in response to terrorist attacks or security crises. The study notes that there is evidence to suggest that "the repression of refugees is more consistent with a scapegoating mechanism than the actual ties and involvement of refugees in terrorism."[118]

Refugees as weapons

"Refugees as Weapons", or "Weapon of Mass Migration" is a term used for mass exodus of refugees from a state to a hostile state as a "weapon" against an enemy. Weaponized migration occurs when a challenging state or non-state actor exploits human migration—whether voluntary or forced—in order to achieve political, military, and/or economic objectives. Kelly Greenhill counts 56 attempts (1951 to 2006) to employ the direct or indirect threat of mass migrations as a non-military instrument of influence.

The concept of "Weaponized Migration" is categorized into Infiltration, Coercive, Dispossessive, Exportive, Fifth Column. Perceiving refugees as a weapon prevents the possible solutions to refugee movement, such in the case of Humanitarian aid directed at refugee relief. The empirical verification of populist suspicion (fear of refugees) threat to national security and terror-related activities is relatively scarce. Read more...


Refugee children come from many different backgrounds, and their reasons for resettlement are even more diverse. The number of refugee children has continued to increase as conflicts interrupt communities at a global scale. In 2014 alone, there were approximately 32 armed conflicts in 26 countries around the world, and this period saw the highest number of refugees ever recorded[119] Refugee children experience traumatic events in their lives that can affect their learning capabilities, even after they have resettled in first or second settlement countries. Educators such as teachers, counselors, and school staff, along with the school environment, are key in facilitating socialization and acculturation of recently arrived refugee and immigrant children in their new schools.[120]


The experiences children go through during times of armed conflict can impede their ability to learn in an educational setting. Schools experience drop-outs of refugee and immigrant students from an array of factors such as: rejection by peers, low self-esteem, antisocial behavior, negative perceptions of their academic ability, and lack of support from school staff and parents.[120] Because refugees come from various regions globally with their own cultural, religious, linguistic, and home practices, the new school culture can conflict with the home culture, causing tension between the student and their family.

Aside from students, teachers and school staff also face their own obstacles in working with refugee students. They have concerns about their ability to meet the mental, physical, emotional, and educational needs of students. One study of newly arrived Bantu students from Somalia in a Chicago school questioned whether schools were equipped to provide them with a quality education that met the needs of the pupils. The students were not aware of how to use pencils, which caused them to break the tips requiring frequent sharpening. Teachers may even see refugee students as different from other immigrant groups, as was the case with the Bantu pupils.[121] Teachers may sometimes feel that their work is made harder because of the pressures to meet state requirements for testing. With refugee children falling behind or struggling to catch up, it can overwhelm teachers and administrators.

Not all students adjust the same way to their new setting. One student may take only three months, while others may take four years. One study found that even in their fourth year of schooling, Lao and Vietnamese refugee students in the US were still in a transitional status.[122] Refugee students continue to encounter difficulties throughout their years in schools that can hinder their ability to learn. Furthermore, to provide proper support, educators must consider the experiences of students before they settled the US.

In their first settlement countries, refugee students may encounter negative experiences with education that they can carry with them post settlement. For example:[119]

  • Frequent disruption in their education as they move from place to place

  • Limited access to schooling

  • Language barriers

  • Little resources to support language development and learning, and more

Statistics found that in places such as Uganda and Kenya, there were gaps in refugee students attending schools. It found that 80% of refugees in Uganda were attending schools, whereas only 46% of students were attending schools in Kenya.[119] Furthermore, for secondary levels, the numbers were much lower. There was only 1.4% of refugee students attending schools in Malaysia. This trend is evident across several first settlement countries and carry negative impacts on students once they arrive to their permanent settlement homes, such as the US, and have to navigate a new education system. Unfortunately, some refugees do not have a chance to attend schools in their first settlement countries because they are considered undocumented immigrants in places like Malaysia for Rohingya refugees.[119] In other cases, such as Burundians in Tanzania, refugees can get more access to education while in displacement than in their home countries.[123]

Overcoming obstacles

All students need some form of support to help them overcome obstacles and challenges they may face in their lives, especially refugee children who may experience frequent disruptions. There are a few ways in which schools can help refugee students overcome obstacles to attain success in their new homes.[120]

  • Respect the cultural differences amongst refugees and the new home culture

  • Individual efforts to welcome refugees to prevent feelings of isolation

  • Educator support

  • Student centered pedagogy as opposed to teacher centered

  • Building relationships with the students

  • Offering praise and providing affirmations

  • Providing extensive support and designing curriculum for students to read, write, and speak in their native languages.[124]

One school in NYC has found a method that works for them to help refugee students succeed. This school creates support for language and literacies, which promotes students using English and their native languages to complete projects. Furthermore, they have a learning centered pedagogy, which promotes the idea that there are multiple entry points to engage the students in learning.[124] Both strategies have helped refugee students succeed during their transition into US schools.

Various websites contain resources that can help school staff better learn to work with refugee students such as Bridging Refugee Youth and Children's Services [151] . With the support of educators and the school community, education can help rebuild the academic, social, and emotional well being of refugee students who have suffered from past and present trauma, marginalization, and social alienation.

Cultural differences

It is important to understand the cultural differences amongst newly arrived refugees and school culture, such as that of the U.S. This can be seen as problematic because of the frequent disruptions that it can create in a classroom setting.

In addition, because of the differences in language and culture, students are often placed in lower classes due to their lack of English proficiency.[119] Students can also be made to repeat classes because of their lack of English proficiency, even if they have mastered the content of the class. When schools have the resources and are able to provide separate classes for refugee students to develop their English skills, it can take the average refugee students only three months to catch up with their peers. This was the case with Somali refugees at some primary schools in Nairobi.[119]

The histories of refugee students are often hidden from educators, resulting in cultural misunderstandings. However, when teachers, school staff, and peers help refugee students develop a positive cultural identity, it can help buffer the negative effects refugees' experiences have on them, such as poor academic performance, isolation, and discrimination.[122]

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.

In 2018, the United Nations estimated the number of forcibly displaced people to be 68.5 million worldwide. Of those, 25.4 million are refugees while 40 million are internally displaced within a nation state and 3.1 million are classified as asylum seekers. 85% of refugees are hosted in developed countries, with 57% coming from Syria, Afghanistan and South Sudan. Turkey is the top hosting country of refugees with 3.5 million displaced people within its borders.[125]

In 2006, there were 8.4 million UNHCR registered refugees worldwide, the lowest number since 1980. 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 were 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.[126]

Among them, Syrian refugees were the largest group in 2015 at 4.9 million.[127] In 2014, Syrians had overtaken Afghan refugees (2.7 million), who had been the largest refugee group for three decades.[128] Somalis were the third largest group with one million. The countries hosting the largest number of refugees according to UNHCR were Turkey (2.5 million), Pakistan (1.6 million), Lebanon (1.1 million) and Iran (1 million).[127] the countries that had the largest numbers of internally displaced people were Colombia at 6.9, Syria at 6.6 million and Iraq at 4.4 million.

Children were 51% of refugees in 2015 and most of them were separated from their parents or travelling alone. in 2015, 86 per cent of the refugees under UNHCR's mandate were in low- and middle-income countries that themselves are close to situations of conflict.[129] Refugees have historically tended to flee to nearby countries with ethnic kin populations and a history of accepting other co-ethnic refugees.[130] The religious, sectarian and denominational affiliation has been an important feature of debate in refugee-hosting nations.[131]

Refugees and people in refugee-like situations by region between 2016 and 2008
Region (UN major area)2016[132]2014[133]2013[134]2012[135]2011[136]2010[137]2009[138]2008[139]
Latin America & Caribbean322,403352,700382,000380,700377,800373,900367,400350,300
Northern America370,291416,400424,000425,800429,600430,100444,900453,200

See also

  • Asylum shopping

  • Conservation refugee, people displaced when conservation areas are created

  • Diaspora, a mass movement of population, usually forced by war or natural disaster

  • Emergencybnb, a website to find accommodation for refugees

  • Emergency evacuation

  • Forced displacement in popular culture

  • Homo sacer, a banned person who may be killed by anybody

  • Human migration

  • Language analysis for the determination of origin

  • List of refugees

  • List of people granted asylum

  • Mehran Karimi Nasseri, an Iranian refugee who lived in Charles de Gaulle Airport

  • Migrant literature

  • No person is illegal, network that represents non-resident immigrants

  • Open borders

  • Political asylum

  • Queer migration

  • Refugee and Asylum Participatory Action Research

  • Refugee health

  • Refugee Nation, a plan to create a nation for refugees

  • Refugee Radio

  • Refugee Studies Centre

  • Refugees United

  • Refugee Olympic Athletes at the 2016 Summer Olympics

  • Right of asylum

  • The I Live Here Projects, a nonprofit storytelling organization

  • Refugee children and refugee women

  • Refugee Nation


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