91. What is a refugee? (English Vocabulary Lesson)

Millions of people around the world are forced to flee their homes, abandon their belongings, and search for safety in countries away from their own country. However, there is a lot of confusion surrounding the rules, laws, and definitions of refugees and other similar people. So, in this episode of Thinking in English, let’s try to answer questions like who can be a refugee? What is the difference between a refugee, an asylum seeker, and a migrant? What protection are refugees entitled to receive?


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Vocabulary List

To flee (v) – to escape by running away, especially because of danger or fear

The criminal fled from the police

To displace (v) – to force someone to leave their home

The construction of a new airport will displace a whole town

Well-founded (adj) – based on facts

To qualify as a refugee you need to prove you have a well-founded fear of persecution

To persecute (v) – to treat someone unfairly or cruelly over a long period of time because of their race, religion, or political beliefs

His latest book is about the experience of being persecuted for his religion 

To abandon (v) – to leave a place, thing, or person, usually for ever

We had to abandon the car due to the snowstorm

To deport (v) – to force someone to leave a country, especially someone who has no legal right to be there or who has broken the law

Thousands of illegal immigrants are caught and deported every year

Eligible (adj) – having the necessary qualities or satisfying the necessary conditions

Only people over 18 are eligible to vote

Asylum (n) – protection or safety, especially that given by a government to people who have been forced to leave their own countries for their safety or because of war

The athlete applied for asylum in Japan

To grant (n) – to give or allow someone something, usually in an official way

They granted her an entry visa

Abject (adj) – the state of being extremely unhappy, poor, unsuccessful, etc

They live in abject poverty  


Since the beginning of June I have been taking a class in international human rights law. As part of my class, I also had to enroll in a few free online training courses provided by the United Nations Human Rights Council, United Nations Women, and the European Union. One of the major topics covered in these classes and courses concerned refugees. You’ve probably heard the term refugee before. If you watch news on the TV, read newspapers, or listen to populist politicians, you may already have certain ideas and impressions about what a refugee is. In fact, there is a chance that you may have met, become friends, or even have family yourself who were, or are, currently refugees. However, most people around the world don’t really understand a lot of the issues, reasons, and law behind this area of human rights. 

From the earliest point of human history, persecution, war, violence or human rights abuses has forced people to flee their homes and abandon their livelihoods to ensure their own safety and the safety of their families. For millions of individuals, the world today is not a safe or stable place. Over 80 million people globally have been pushed out of their hometowns, regions, and countries. This figure has doubled over the past 10 years. After the two world wars at the beginning of the 20th century,  governments around the world came together to create international laws that would help protect people displaced by conflict. The result was the Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees (better known as the Refugee Convention) which was adopted by the United Nations on July 28th 1951. This convention sets guidelines about how to treat people fleeing their homes. So, who can be a refugee? What is the difference between a refugee, an asylum seeker, and a migrant? What protection are refugees entitled to receive? 

According to the Refugee Convention, a refugee is a person who is outside of their home country, and has a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of ethnicity, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group or political opinion, and is unable or unwilling to return home, because they fear of persecution. They are people who have fled war, conflict, violence, or persecution and have crossed an international border to find safety in another country. Often they must leave suddenly, which means abandoning their homes, belongings, clothes, jobs, family and friends. However, not every person who claims to be a refugee is officially recognised as one. To be officially recognised as a refugee an individual must apply in the country they fled to, and be confirmed to meet all the requirements by that government. 

Every member of the UN is bound by international law to protect the rights of refugees. The most important protection is known as the principle of non-refoulment. Now, this is a confusing name, but the meaning is actually quite simple, so don’t worry if that vocabulary confused you! Non-refoulment means that a country is banned, prohibited, not allowed, to deport or move an individual to their home country if that person will be in danger or at risk there. Basically, you can’t deport someone if they will be in danger at home. The refugee convention also guarantees other rights to refugees. Countries cannot punish refugees who arrive in their country. Refugees also have rights to work, housing, and education in their host countries. Some people who have been granted refugee status are actually incredibly well known: Freddie Mercury, the lead singer of Queen, fled Zanzibar in the 1960s; popstar Rita Ora arrived in the UK as a refugee from Kosovo as a baby; the world’s most famous scientist Albert Einstein was a German-Jewish refugee; actress Rachel Weisz is the children of two refugees; and Hannah Arendt, one of the most influential philosophers of the last century, fled Germany as a child. 

Of those 80 million displaced people mentioned earlier, around 25 million of those are officially recognised as refugees. The majority, however, don’t fit the refugee criteria. Remember, to be a refugee requires a “well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of ethnicity, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group or political opinion.” Ethnicity, religion, nationality, membership of a social group or political opinion. This is it! People who flee their countries and seek refuge for other reasons are therefore not protected by the previously mentioned laws and are not eligible to be recognised as refugees. You can’t be a refugee due to reasons of poverty, because you don’t have a job, because wages are low in your country, because of health reasons, or anything similar. However, this doesn’t stop millions of people who do not qualify as refugees from fleeing their homes for economic reasons and trying to apply for asylum

There are currently around 4 million asylum seekers across the world. This is a term that is quite controversial and often confusing. In fact, I guess most people don’t really understand the difference between a refugee and an asylum seeker. I’ll try to explain it simply. An asylum-seeker is a person who claims that they are a refugee, but they have not had their claim confirmed yet. Governments have departments and authorities whose job it is to determine whether a person is actually entitled to claim asylum and be granted status as a refugee. In other words, an asylum seeker is a person waiting to be confirmed, or rejected, as an asylum seeker. Anyone can apply for asylum as long as they are in a country that is not their home. I can apply; you can apply. But just because you apply for asylum, doesn’t mean you will be successful. You need to fit the refugee criteria i talked about earlier

If they are unsuccessful in their application, asylum seekers may be sent back to their home country. However, even if they are rejected as refugees, they may not be sent back if it is too dangerous. Some countries have strict rules about what asylum seekers can, and can’t, do while they are being assessed. In my country, for example, asylum seekers are not allowed to work (even if the work is voluntary). 

You might have noticed that at the beginning of the episode I mentioned 80 million displaced people. But if we add the figures for refugees and asylum seekers, that is only about 30 million. So who are the other 50 million? The majority of refugees around the world are actually still in their home country. These people are known as Internally Displaced People (or IDPs). Like other refugees, they are forced to flee their homes due to reasons outside of their control; often things like conflict, disease outbreaks, natural disasters, political problems. However, they remain within the borders of their own country and are under the protection of their own government. Perhaps they move to a safer area, or a place the government decides. Although these people face the same difficulties and challenges as refugees, they are not granted the same rights under international law. They are not officially considered as refugees. Of course, they are still entitled to human rights, just as every individual around the world is thanks to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. However, some governments are unwilling or unable to help their citizens, especially if there are a lot of people fleeing their homes at the same time. 

As the definition of refugee is quite narrow, charities and organisations have often argued for the category to be expanded and new reasons to be a refugee to be added. At the moment, people fleeing from natural disasters like earthquakes, tsunamis, hurricanes, typhoons, and volcanoes are excluded. And in the future, “climate” refugees are going to become increasingly common. Especially in the Pacific islands, there are countries at severe risk from rising sea levels. What happens to the people who are forced to leave home because of these reasons? They definitely deserve international protection, but they do not currently have the same privileges as refugees. In fact, there is very little enthusiasm for broadening the definition of refugee. Increasing numbers of asylum seekers, specifically asylum seekers who are not actually entitled to be refugees, has made countries and their populations unhappy with the idea of more refugees. 

Although they stand no chance of receiving refugee status, a final category of people it is important to mention are economic migrants. When we talk about leaving countries, we can split the different motivations or reasons into push and pull factors; things that push, or force, you out of your home country and pull, or attract, you to your destination. For refugees, they are almost always pushed out of their homes. Migrants, however, often have different motivations. Economic migrants are not forced to move due to persecution or violence, but instead make the decision to leave home in an effort to improve their economic prospects. Sometimes, this can be just as urgent! Imagine people living in abject poverty, without clean water or enough food, without jobs or education, and with sick or ill families; the motivation for these people to create a better life abroad can be really strong. 

However, these people are not classified as refugees. And if they apply for asylum abroad, as often happens, they will usually be rejected. The refugee and migrant crisis in Europe which started around 6 or 7 years ago saw thousands of people trying to travel to places like Germany and the UK. While many were legitimate refugees and asylum seekers, amongst the people fleeing were economic migrants trying to find a better life. Legal migrants have many rights, as do refugees. Illegal migrants and failed asylum seekers are often a lot more vulnerable. 

Final Thought

This episode has discussed some of the important ideas surrounding international human rights. In particular, I have tried to explain what a refugee is, what rights they are entitled to, and the differences between refugees, asylum seekers, and forced migrants.

Whether a person is a refugee, an asylum seeker, an internally displaced person, or a migrant, you should always remember that these individuals are often forced to flee their country because they have no choice. As a university student, I had the opportunity to work with refugees due to my role with a human rights charity, and many of the people I spoke with had experienced terrible things and would rather be in their home country. Remember they often had to leave behind friends and family, houses, jobs, belongings. They are fleeing from wars, conflicts, disasters, diseases, and persecution they did not create. While politicians, newspapers, and other people sometimes blame refugees for various societal problems, the vast majority work hard to build new lives in difficult circumstances. 


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