Who is a Refugee?

April 24, 2019

With the world currently facing the highest levels of displacement since WWII, the news cycle is dominated by stories about people who have been forced from their homes. Between conflict in Iraq and Syria, political unrest in Venezuela, record-breaking cyclones in Mozambique, and migrant caravans from Central America, our political discourse is shaped by stories about refugees. But are all of these people actually refugees? The answer is convoluted - and it has a significant impact on whether or not people are able to receive humanitarian assistance.

Persecution or Discrimination?

In the aftermath of World War II, millions of uprooted people in Europe, Asia, and Africa began the long process of trying to return home to rebuild their communities. The United Nations recognized that significant humanitarian assistance was needed to facilitate this process and established the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, or UNHCR, in 1950. The next year, UNHCR convened the 1951 Convention on Refugees, which set up the legal definition of a refugee that is still in use to this day.

“Someone who has been forced to flee from their country and unable or unwilling to return because of a well-founded fear of persecution based on race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion.”

The guiding principle behind this definition is that a person can only qualify as a refugee if their displacement is driven by persecution due to their membership in a protected social group. And legally speaking, that is very hard to prove. Under the 1951 Convention, discrimination - while immoral and distressing - does not rise to this definition of persecution. The key ingredients of persecution require both threats or acts of violence coupled with discrimination. As a result, state-sponsored violence like beatings and detentions don’t always qualify as persecution either.

Despite significant persecution around the world, UNHCR’s original 3-year mandate was limited to serving only one million Europeans who had been displaced prior to 1951. Following this work, UNHCR was expected to disband. However, mass displacement following the decolonization of Africa, the Hungarian revolution, and other conflicts around the world motivated the global community to expand UNHCR’s mandate.

The 1967 Protocol set the stage for this expansion of humanitarian services to many new groups of people, including those fleeing from external aggression, human rights abuses, and a general collapse of social order. Unfortunately, the UN Convention on Refugees and its 1967 Addendum Protocol still left many displaced people behind. To this day, people fleeing gang violence or climate change do not qualify for refugee status and therefore experience increased vulnerabilities in their journeys to safety.

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