The definition of a refugee is outlined in the 1951 UN Convention on the Status of Refugees. A refugee is a person who has been forced to flee their home country due to the risk of persecution on the grounds of race, religion, political opinion, sexuality, etc. This will often, but not always, be in a situation of war or armed conflict.
An asylum seeker is a person who seeks protection in another country and whose application has not been finally decided on. Once an asylum seeker’s application is approved and asylum is granted, they become recognised as refugees. Not all asylum applications are approved, meaning that not all asylum seekers are ultimately recognised as refugees, but access to a fair and efficient asylum procedure is key to protect those who are.
Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) are people or groups of people who have had to flee or leave their homes or places of habitual residence but have not crossed an internationally recognised State border. Particularly, as a result of – or in order to – avoid the effects of armed conflict, situations of generalised violence, human rights violations or natural or human-made disasters.
In simple terms, a person is stateless if no country is willing to recognise them as a citizen. People can be born into statelessness, for example, if national rules prevent their mother from passing on her citizenship. One can also become stateless over the course of their life for reasons such as national rules discriminating against specific ethnic groups or laws which result in the loss of citizenship, for example, if one is absent from their country of origin for a longer period of time.
According to International Human Rights Law, every person has the right to seek asylum. What is more, under the principle of non-refoulement, no person should be sent back to a country where they risk persecution. Asylum procedures for deciding on refugee status must be fair and efficient to ensure that refugees are provided protection as quickly as possible.
There are no international frameworks for asylum procedures, but there are universal principles that derive from International Law that States must respect. Among others, these include the right to information on the asylum procedure, where the asylum seeker should receive the necessary guidance on the procedure, and the right to appeal a negative decision.
If an asylum application is rejected, and the individual does not have any other legal ground for staying, they must leave the country. If they refuse to do so, the State can return them to their country if a repatriation agreement is in place between the host country and the country of origin.
How rejected asylum seekers are accommodated varies greatly. In Denmark, rejected asylum seekers are moved to specific departure centres until they leave the country. However, in some countries, those whose asylum application has been rejected also lose the right to accommodation and are often faced with living on the streets until their departure.
In 2015, the number of people entering the European Union by crossing the Mediterranean Sea or through land routes in Southeast Europe surpassed one million. This was widely known as the ‘European Refugee Crisis’. It was, however, more than anything, a protection crisis due to the lack of will to share the responsibility to protect refugees arriving to the EU.
According to the 2019 UNHCR Refugee Education report, globally, 91% of children attend primary school, compared to 63% of refugee children. In secondary school, the disparity is even greater, with only 24% of refugee adolescents enrolled in secondary education, compared to 84% globally. 3% of refugee youth have access to higher education, compared to 37% of youth globally.
The vast majority of refugees seek refuge in a neighbouring country or in the same region as their home country. According to the UNHCR, in 2020, developing countries hosted 86% of the world’s refugees, while 73% were hosted in neighbouring countries. Added to this are 48 million internally displaced persons who are displaced inside their own country.
Refugee camps are not made to be permanent solutions for the displaced, even though they often stay there for months or even years. It is estimated, however, that approximately 75% of the world’s refugees live in cities instead of refugee camps.
Refugees may find themselves applying for asylum in countries where their specific protection needs may not be met. In these situations, they can be resettled to a third country. The UNHCR defines resettlement as “the transfer of refugees from an asylum country to another State, that has agreed to admit them and ultimately grant them permanent residence”.
At the moment, Turkey is the country that hosts the most refugees in the world, hosting 3.7 million refugees within its borders. According to the UNHCR, this number breaks down to some 3.6 million registered Syrian refugees and close to 320,000 of other nationalities. Falling in second place is Colombia, the neighbouring country to Venezuela, which hosts over 1.7 million refugees.
Refugees and displaced persons often face numerous challenges when looking for employment, such as harassment, exploitation, or discrimination, particularly if they do not have access to formal or legal employment. Thus, there is a need for governments to collaborate with municipalities and civil society or humanitarian actors, such as the UNHCR, DRC and local NGOs or agencies to expand opportunities that will support refugees in becoming self-reliant (e.g., to have access to education, employment workshops, cash grants for opening a business, etc.), while also targeting the most vulnerable members of the host communities.
Facilitating refugees’ access to livelihoods and jobs is crucial in building self-reliance and resilience to be able to live a dignified life in displacement.
The term “climate refugee” is not a legally recognised term. It is, however, used in popular language to describe people who have been forcibly displaced due to environmental factors that result from climate change and natural disasters, such as earthquakes or floods.
Climate change acts as a threat multiplier and its consequences often increase pre-existing social, political, environmental, economic, or demographic challenges. This, in turn, may increase displacement and make durable solutions more difficult to achieve.
The importance of refugee inclusion has been highlighted by the Global Compact on Refugees, adopted in December 2018 by most UN Member States. “Enhancing refugee self-reliance” is one of the main objectives of the Compact.
Refugees have specific rights pertaining to their refugee status, such as the right to protection from refoulement (under the principle of non-refoulement, a receiving country is forbidden to return refugees to a country where they would be in danger of persecution), the right to education, freedom of movement and family life.
There are many ways to actively help refugees. Firstly, stay educated and educate others on the complex situation many refugees find themselves in. You can also research local volunteer initiatives in your city or country and see how you can get involved. Maybe you can volunteer at a refugee camp? Maybe you know a foreign language and could help a refugee get around your city? Or maybe you could participate in a refugee integration event?
You can also follow the work of a refugee organisation, either locally or globally. Many of them are non-profit organisations, financed completely by donations. You can support them by volunteering or donating.