Who is a Refugee?

Last year, more than 1 million people were forced to leave home due to conflict and make the perilous journey to seek refuge in a country not their own in Europe. The influx of refugees, mainly Syrian, to Greece, Germany, Sweden and elsewhere made daily headlines, yet the reality of their lives remained misunderstood. Many news outlets have used the terms ‘refugee’ and ‘migrant’ interchangeably; however, the terms have distinct meanings and calling the plight of refugees a migrant crisis is inaccurate.

Refugees focus on issues of human rights and protection, whereas migrants focus on economic and professional concerns. Economic concerns may be pressing indeed–there is no joy in facing a future without the hope of a decent job. Yet safety concerns are a different matter and can mean the difference between life and death. “Blurring the two terms takes attention away from the specific legal protections refugees require. It can undermine public support for refugees and the institution of asylum at a time when more refugees need such protection than ever before,” wrote Adrian Edwards, Head of News and Chief Spokesperson at UNHCR.


The legal definition of a refugee emerged in response to the aftermath of Second World War. By the time World War II ended, millions of people had fled their homes and didn’t have immediate support. The situation in their countries of arrival was so difficult that international law and organisations dealing with refugees—such as the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees and International Refugee Organization (later replaced by the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Refugees or UNHCR)—were created.

Legally speaking

According to Article 1A(2) of the 1951 Refugee Convention, the key elements of the refugee definition are:

  1. The well-founded fear of persecution which is assessed objectively and subjectively.
  2. Persecution. This element is particularly difficult to define—there is no definition of persecution under the international law; nor accepted definition of what persecution means.
  3. The core grounds that are acknowledged as the contributing factors to the persecution. The fears of persecution are for reason of one or more of the five grounds — race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group or political opinion.
  4. Outside of one’s own country or nationality.
  5. Unable to get the protection from their own state.

Refugee law is declarative—that is, it confirms the status the person already is. If the five elements above apply, then the person is a refugee according to its legal definition, even before they register with UNHCR. As statistics only show people who register with UNHCR, there are many more refugees in the world than the data represent. The number of refugees registered with UNHCR worldwide currently stands at 15.5 million, according to UNHCR Mid-Year Trends, June 2015.

The broader view

There has been a debate over the legal definition of a refugee as it only protects individuals subject to persecution—not those who cross an international border fleeing war, natural disasters, mass atrocity, or trafficking. While some are satisfied with the status quo, many argue that the Refugee Convention is inadequate to deal with contemporary geopolitical problems.

When Africa was under colonial rule, the Organization for African Unity supplemented the definition of a refugee with an expanded version which covers group scenarios. It states, “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” (Article 1, OAU Convention 1969).

Latin America took a similar approach in expanding the definition of a refugee in the 1984 Cartagena Declaration on Refugees.

The European Union, by contrast, has made and implemented policies—such as granting refugees humanitarian status instead of refugee status—that are relatively restraining.

In Southeast Asia, few countries are signatory to the Refugee Convention and many countries, including Indonesia, act as transit countries but do not absorb refugees for permanent resettlement. The lack of national legal framework governing the refugees in countries such as Indonesia means that refugee protection is limited; for example, the government does not guarantee support for refugee’s right to education.

Being a refugee is not a choice

It is often the push factors rather than the pull factors that compel refugees to flee; they feel pushed out by fear—of government, of imprisonment, of torture, or worse. “All it took for me was one night and one decision; the decision to leave,” a refugee friend told me. He had a job, a car or two, and possibly a nice house in Iran. “That one night I left everything. Now I have nothing. But it feels safer here,” he said.


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