Who are 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 his nationality and is unable to, or owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country . . .
The United Nations Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, 1951
Imagine being so scared of being killed or tortured that you would leave your home and all your possessions without knowing where you could live in safety.
Who are ‘people of concern’?
Not all people who flee their homes are defined as refugees. They may be:
- Asylum seekers – people who have fled their own country in fear of persecution and are seeking recognition as refugees.
- Returned refugees – people who have been able to return home.
- Internally Displaced People (IDP) – people who flee their homes in fear, but do not cross over their country's international borders.
- Stateless persons – people not considered a national by any country.
Collectively they are known as ‘people of concern’. At the end of 2010 there were over 32 million such ‘people of concern’ who had left their homes in fear.
Life in flight
Leaving home hurriedly, people have few resources and are vulnerable to attack. They have many days of travel, with little food and are in fear for their lives. If they get to safety, they rely on the people living in the area to which they have fled. International organisations take time to mobilise the support necessary.
When people arrive at a temporary refugee shelter, they are registered for their protection and to determine their needs. Defining who and where people are assists in the supply of sufficient resources, especially for those with special needs such as separated children, those needing medical attention and the elderly.
Each situation is different. The length of time taken to resolve the conflict, resources available to meet needs, and the international ability to find solutions all affect the ability of refugees to rebuild their lives.
How are the rights of refugees protected?
The United Nations Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees (1951) and its 1967 Protocol outline the rights and processes protecting the needs of refugees. A total of 147countries signed one or both of these documents.
Most people fleeing from conflict and persecution seek asylum in a neighbouring country. Often these countries are poor. UNHCR coordinates the protection of refugees and the provision of finance, food, shelter, schools and clinics, and attempts to find durable solutions.
How are the rights of ‘people of concern’ protected?
- Asylum seekers – The United Nations Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees guarantees the right of asylum seekers to be free from persecution. It requires that they be offered the same protection and benefits as other citizens of the host country. In cases where asylum seekers are not recognised as refugees, the Convention states that they must not be returned to a situation in which they will be in danger.
- Returnees – The UNHCR monitors the situation of returnees for 12 months after they return.
- IDPs – Although their own government is responsible for them, it may be either unable or unwilling to assist them and it may invite the UNHCR to protect them.
- Stateless persons – The UNHCR works with governments to prevent statelessness from occurring, to resolve those cases that do occur, and to protect the rights of stateless persons.
In general the protection of ‘people of concern’ is limited. Security or political concerns and limited financial resources restrict the ability of the governments of host countries, international agencies and non-government organisations to offer assistance and provide protection.
How are refugee issues resolved?
The preferred solution is for refugees to return home, but a great deal of support is necessary to rebuild their lives and the infrastructure, and to restore stability. Landmines may need to be cleared. Trust between people who have been fighting needs to be re-established.
Resettlement in a new country
Some refugees cannot go home because they fear they will face continued persecution. In such circumstances, UNHCR helps to find them new homes, either in the country of asylum, or in a third country. This may take a long time, as there are more people in need than places available. Resettling refugees requires tremendous support, as they learn a new culture and language, establish a new social network, begin to earn a living and overcome the trauma they have experienced.