Defining a Refugee
You probably have a good idea of what makes a person a refugee - intuitively, most people do. But when these intuitions are encoded into law and guidelines for organisations, they’re often reductive, and when the support that these people can receive depends on their recognition, these lapses have a very real impact. This article aims to expose the restrictions the legal definitions of a refugee inevitably impose on these vulnerable people and the support they need, and posits a definition grounded in human needs that might improve the support networks refugees have access to. Key among these benefits of qualifying is the right to refuge, or, as it’s written, that “No Contracting State shall expel or return a refugee in any manner whatsoever to the frontiers of territories where his life or freedom would be threatened on account of his race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group of political opinion.” This entitlement, along with many others, is not afforded as readily to those not strictly considered refugees.
Most institutions borrow their definition from that set out in the United Nations’ 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees. This was specifically in response to peoples displaced by the horrors of WWII and so referred only to refugees made as such before 1951, and though this time frame was later removed, that is the only amendment the definition has had. A refugee as outlined in the convention “is someone who is unable or unwilling to return to their country of origin owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion” (UN, 1951). According to this definition, 27.1 million people worldwide were considered refugees at the end of 2021, but that is out of at least 89.3 million displaced from their homes (UNHCR, 2022). Understandably, there are legitimate reasons why all 89.3 million can’t be eligible for the same benefits refugees are, but there is still a considerable gap that people who need the support fall into because they don’t qualify as refugees according to this strict definition.
You might notice that the definition only leaves room for people fleeing other people, and not environmental crises or natural disasters. Obviously, the effects of climate change are massive and numerous: desertification, rising sea levels, forest fires and much more are leading to more than 20 million people being forced from their homes each year - yet they are not refugees and do not qualify for the safety nets refugees do. Natural disasters are the same, displacing millions of people a year and yet not qualifying for the same standard of security. It might also be important to note that not only were those displaced by the recent Turkish-Syrian earthquakes not afforded adequate help, but that the response from some countries was to fortify borders to keep displaced people where it isn’t safe for them to be (The Guardian, 2023).
It also specifies persecution and not general violence. This is not adequate as tens of millions of people are forced from their homes in wartime from conflict threatening their security, or occupation of some faction that might exploit or otherwise hurt them or their families. Many of the people fleeing the conflict in Ukraine currently come under this category, and though a case could be made that this is because of political allegiance, many people simply fear the bombing campaigns that do not discriminate based on opinion.
In anticipation of this, some organisations have adopted more lenient definitions that account for more general disturbances. The 1984 Colloquium on the International Protection of Refugees in Latin America, Mexico and Panama has defined refugees as “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.” In a similar vein, the Organisation for African Unity has posited that “the term refugee shall also apply to 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.” These do a good job at including the above issues, but the problem is these definitions also conform to international borders. While recognised by the international governing bodies, these borders might have very little impact on the lived experiences of displaced people compared to barriers in ethnicity, language, and religion, as well as those who simply cannot return to their homes but remain in their country. In many places in the world, divisions in cultural identity can be starker than borders on a map. The importance of clans, tribes, and regions have been understated by those historically undertaking the task of defining a refugee, and there are twice as many internally displaced people as refugees. This is the case in Northern Pakistan, where well over 2 million people have been internally displaced since 2001 (Inter Press Service, 2014).
The emphasis on international borders doesn’t just affect those who don’t cross them, but the descendants of those who do. Migration crises are multigenerational issues that don’t simply end after a period of time. Some places experience periods of conflict or disaster that can last decades. In Jordan, roughly half of the Syrian population are native to their country (UNHCR, 2019). Many more of those in Jordan belong to displaced families and suffer many of the same issues, but haven’t personally crossed an international border. The prevalent sense of primeval identities - that you belong to certain groups as a fact of your existence - means that many of these people feel out of place culturally, even before their material conditions are considered.
BizGees focuses on the human needs of refugees, and we might be able to conceive a definition of refugees which is more helpful using this perspective. Firstly, we might remove the need for international borders in the definition by simply saying those forced from their residence by a severe denial of their needs. Chief amongst these is the need for safety, security, and survival. The threat of persecution certainly qualifies, but so does war, natural disaster, and climate emergency. Understanding and acceptance can be denied through severe prejudice and hostility, as can their esteem and identity. People are frequently denied participation through various means, such as denying employment, which also infringes on their self-actualisation. Freedom and justice is threatened by rampant corruption suffered in much of the world, among many other things. These are some of the human needs displaced people will always feel are in some way under threat.
It is easy to see how those who are denied their human needs and forced from their homes are also denied the benefits conferred on refugees based simply on legal semantics. True, many governments are lenient in their definitions when considering giving aid or applications for asylum, but the grey area that exists because of these definitions allows these governments to be more selective in these considerations, at which point dangerous biases at the top levels might decide who is denied support. We need to find a new way forward to encompass the millions of people in need of help that they are not receiving. The previous attempts at covering the bases left by the UN’s definition have left gaps of their own, but by assessing the human needs of displaced people, perhaps we can even move beyond the need for the refugee label entirely, and respond directly to the needs of all people.
Dylan is a third year History and Politics student at Oxford University. He researched and wrote this article as part of the Oxford University Micro Internship programme.