What is a Refugee?

In everyday language, the term “refugee” expresses broad notions of destitution and escape from natural disasters or wars. However, the definition in international law, according to article 1A (2) of the United Nations Convention on the Status of Refugees of 1951, is much narrower. In terms of the Convention, a refugee is a person who, outside the 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 cannot or, because of that fear, he is not willing to avail himself of the protection of that country …


Therefore, refugees must by definition be outside their countries of origin, as opposed to Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs), forced to move within their own countries. Article 1 (F) of the Convention excludes those who commit serious non-political crimes, war crimes, or actions contrary to UN principles. Furthermore, the Convention does not apply to victims of the civil war (a “differential impact” is required, which places the person at special risk), although “subsidiary protection” may be granted for humanitarian reasons.

Still, the numbers involved are staggering. The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) estimates that in 2007 there were 51 million internally displaced persons worldwide, generated almost equally by conflict and disaster, and some 16 million refugees, including 4, 6 million Palestinians for whom there is a separate United Nations reserve. Of course, these figures do not take into account economic migrants.

Article 1A (2) has been the subject of an intense analysis in national and international jurisprudence and jurisprudence, but although the five “reasons for the Convention” that are listed in it seem to evoke basic concepts of social sciences, the legal definitions developed during the The last half century does not owe much to the ideas of social scientists, then or now. In addition, two striking omissions from that list are persecution for reasons of sexuality or gender, the latter a deliberate exclusion that its British delegate urged the drafting committee. Consequently, the Convention, while supposedly gender neutral, could be said not to recognize the gender character of, for example, religious and political action or group membership.

Although only a tiny proportion of potential refugees reach Europe or North America, their increasing number in the 1990s led to the demonization of “asylum seekers”, prompting a frenzy of national legislation and repeated attempts by the Union. European “harmonize” its procedures in a way that critics claim implies the creation of the “Fortress Europe”. For asylum seekers, their stigmatization and the lengthy legal processes in which they are involved serve to increase the marginality created by forced displacement, while the severe limitations imposed on their right to work and freedom of movement

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