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This article is for the group of people as defined by international law. For the description of "refugee" as casually used for any person who has been forced to leave their home, see displaced person. For other uses see refugee (disambiguation).
Refugees arrive in Travnik, central Bosnia, during the war, 1993. Photo by Mikhail Evstafiev
Refugees arrive in Travnik, central Bosnia, during the war, 1993. Photo by Mikhail Evstafiev

A refugee is a person seeking asylum in a foreign country in order to escape persecution. Some regional legal instruments further include those seeking to escape generalized violence in the definition of a refugee. Those who seek refugee status are sometimes known as asylum seekers and the practice of accepting such refugees is that of offering political asylum. The most common asylum claims to industrialized countries are based upon political and religious grounds.

Under the 1951 Convention on Refugees and 1967 Protocol, a nation must grant asylum to refugees and cannot forcibly return refugees to their nations of origin. However, many nations routinely ignore this treaty. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) is dedicated to protecting the rights and wellbeing of refugees. As of 31 December 2004, the agency reported a total of 9,236,500 official refugees (excluding an additional 4 million Palestinian refugees) [1].

Globally, about 16 countries (Australia, Benin, Brazil, Burkina Faso, Canada, Chile, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Ireland, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Sweden, the United Kingdom, and the United States [2]) regularly accept quota refugees from places such as refugee camps. Usually these are people who have escaped war. In recent years, most quota refugees have come from Iran and Iraq, which have been in various wars and revolutions, and the former Yugoslavia, due to the Yugoslav wars.


Asylum seekers

Power lines leading to a trash dump hover just overhead in El Carpio, a Nicaraguan refugee camp in Costa Rica
Power lines leading to a trash dump hover just overhead in El Carpio, a Nicaraguan refugee camp in Costa Rica

Refugees are a subgroup of the broader category of displaced persons. They are distinguished from economic migrants who have left their country of origin for economic reasons, and from internally displaced persons who have not crossed an international border. Environmental refugees (people displaced because of environmental problems such as drought) are not included in the definition of "refugee" under international law. Strictly speaking: a refugee is someone who seeks refuge out of fear of other people as opposed to any other motivational cause.

The practical determination of whether a person is a refugee or not is most often left to certain government agencies within the host country. This can lead to abuse in a country with a very restrictive official immigration policy; for example, that the country will neither recognize the refugee status of the asylum seekers nor see them as legitimate migrants and treat them as legal aliens.

A claim for asylum may also be made onshore, usually after making an unauthorised arrival. Some governments are relatively tolerant and accepting of onshore asylum claims; other governments will not only refuse such claims, but may actually arrest or detain those who attempt to seek asylum. A small number of governments, such as that of Australia, have a policy of mandatory detention of asylum seekers.

Refugee law

Under international law, refugees are individuals who:

  • are outside their country of nationality or habitual residence;
  • have a well-founded fear of persecution because of their race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group or political opinion; and
  • are unable or unwilling to avail themselves of the protection of that country, or to return there, for fear of persecution.

Refugee law encompasses both customary law, peremptory norms, and international legal instruments. These include:


Main article: United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees

Headquartered in Geneva, Switzerland, the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) (established December 14, 1950) protects and supports refugees at the request of a government or the United Nations and assists in their return or resettlement. It succeeded the earlier International Refugee Organization and the even earlier United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration.

UNHCR was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1954 and 1981. The agency is mandated to lead and co-ordinate international action to protect refugees and resolve refugee problems worldwide. Its primary purpose is to safeguard the rights and well-being of refugees. It strives to ensure that everyone can exercise the right to seek asylum and find safe refuge in another State, with the option to return home voluntarily, integrate locally or to resettle in a third country.

UNHCR's mandate has gradually been expanded to include protecting and providing humanitarian assistance to what it describes as other persons "of concern," including internally-displaced persons (IDPs) who would fit the legal definition of a refugee under the 1951 Refugee Convention and 1967 Protocol, the 1969 Organization for African Unity Convention, or some other treaty if they left their country, but who presently remain in their country of origin. UNHCR thus has missions in Colombia, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Serbia and Montenegro and Ivory Coast to assist and provide services to IDPs.

Refugee camps

A camp in Guinea for refugees from Sierra Leone.
A camp in Guinea for refugees from Sierra Leone.
Main article: Refugee camps

A refugee camp is a camp built up by governments or NGOs (such as the ICRC) to receive refugees.

Since refugee camps are generally set up in an impromptu fashion, and designed to meet basic human needs for a short time, when civil war or other problems prevent the return of refugees, or children essentially grow up in the camps, a humanitarian crisis can result.

Refugee groups

Boat people

Boat people is a term usually referring to impoverished illegal immigrants or asylum seekers who arrive en masse in old or crudely made boats. The term came into common use in the 1970s with the mass exodus of Vietnamese refugees following the Vietnam War.

It is a widely used form of migration for people migrating from Cuba, Haiti, Morocco, Vietnam or Albania. They often risk their lives on dangerously crude and overcrowded boats to escape oppression or poverty in their home nations. Events resulting from the Vietnam War led many people in Cambodia, Laos, and especially Vietnam to become refugees in the late 1970s and 1980s. In 2001, 353 asylum seekers sailing from Indonesia to Australia drowned when their vessel sank.

A danger to any given boat person is that the 'boat' he or she is riding may actually be anything that would float and was large enough for passengers. Although such makeshift craft are after sources of international tragedies, some strike amusing and optomistic notes. For instance, in 2003 some Cubans attempted (unsuccessfully, but safely) to reach Florida in a 1950s pickup truck made boyant by oil barrels strapped to its sides.

Boat people are frequently a source of controversy in the nation they seek to immigrate to, such as the United States, Canada, Italy, Spain and Australia. Boat people are often forcibly prevented from landing at their destination, such as under Australia's Pacific Solution, or they are subjected to mandatory detention after their arrival.

Refugee movement in Europe

The majority of refugee movements in Europe have been due to political revolution and the subsequent oppression of nonconformist groups. The Russian Revolution of 1917 and the subsequent civil war (19171921) led to about 1,500,000 refugees, most of them fleeing the Communist government. In 1915 and 1923, more than 1,000,000 Armenians left Turkish Asia Minor due to a series of events now known as the Armenian Genocide.

Several hundred thousand Spanish Republicans travelled to France after their loss to the Nationalists in 1939 in the Spanish Civil War.

After the defeat of Germany in World War II, the Potsdam Conference authorized the expulsion of German minorities from a number of European countries, meaning that 12,000,000 ethnic Germans were displaced to the reallocated and divided territory of Allied-occupied Germany. Between the end of World War II and the erection of the Berlin Wall in 1961, more than 3,700,000 refugees from East Germany travelled to West Germany for asylum from the Soviet occupation.

Beginning in 1991, political upheavals in Eastern Europe such as the breakup of Yugoslavia, displaced about 2,000,000 people by mid-1992.

Refugee movements in Asia

Since World War II, Asia and the Middle East has been a large source of refugees.

  • The Korean War (1950–53) and the Chinese take-over of Tibet (1959) both caused the displacement of more than 1 million refugees.
  • The partition of the Indian subcontinent into India and Pakistan in 1947 resulted in the largest human movement in history, an exchange of 18,000,000 Hindus from Pakistan and Muslims from India. During the Bangladesh Liberation War in 1971, owing to the West Pakistani Army's Operation Searchlight, more than 10 million Bengalis fled to neighbouring India.
  • Large numbers of Vietnamese refugees came into existence after 1975 when South Vietnam fell to the communist forces. Many tried to escape, some by boat, thus gaving rise to the phrase "boat people," and emigrated to Hong Kong, France, the United States, Canada, Australia, and other countries, creating sizable expatriate communities, notably in the United States.
  • The Mien or Yao recently lived in northern Vietnam, northern Laos and northern Thailand. In 1975, the Pathet Lao forces began seeking reprisal for the involvement of many Mien as soldiers in a CIA-sponsored secret war in Laos. As a token of appreciation to the Mien and Hmong people who served in the CIA secret army, the United States accepted many of the refugees as naturalized citizens (Mien American).
  • During the 1980s and early '90s, Afghanistan and the Afghan War (1978–92) caused more than 6,000,000 refugees to flee to the neighbouring countries of Pakistan and Iran, making Afghanistan the country with the greatest number of refugees. Iran also provided asylum for 1,400,000 Iraqi refugees who had been uprooted as a result of the Persian Gulf War (1990–91).

Refugee movements in Africa

Since the 1950s, many nations in Africa have suffered civil wars and ethnic strife, thus generating a massive number of refugees of many different nationalities and ethnic groups. The division of Africa into European colonies in 1885, along which lines the newly independent nations of the 1950s and 1960s drew their borders, has been cited as a major reason why Africa has been so plagued with intrastate warfare. The number of refugees in Africa increased from 860,000 in 1968 to 6,775,000 by 1992 (Encyclopædia Britannica, 2004). By the end of 2004, that number had dropped to 2,748,400 refugees, according to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees [3]. (That figure does not include internally displaced persons, who do not cross international borders and so do not fit the official definition of refugee.)

Many refugees in Africa cross into neighboring countries to find safe haven; often, African countries are simultaneously countries of origin for refugees and countries of asylum for other refugees. The Democratic Republic of Congo, for instance, was the country of origin for 462,203 refugees at the end of 2004, but a country of asylum for 199,323 other refugees.

Countries in Africa from where 5,000 or more refugees originated as of the end of 2004, arranged in descending order of numbers of refugees. (UNHCR, 2004 Global Refugee Trends, Table 3.)

Great Lakes refugee crisis

Main article: Great Lakes refugee crisis

In the aftermath of the 1994 Rwandan Genocide, over two million people fled into neighboring countries, in particular Zaire. The refugee camps soon came to be controlled by the former government and Hutu militants who used the camps as bases to launch attacks against the new government in Rwanda. Little action was taken to resolve the situation and the crisis did not end until Rwanda-supported rebels forced the refugees back across the border in the beginning of the First Congo War.

Refugees from Sudan

These refugees have fled either the longstanding and recently concluded Sudanese Civil War, or the situation in Darfur. They are housed mainly in Chad, Uganda, Ethiopia, and Kenya.

Haitians and Cubans

From 1991 through 1994, thousands of Haitians fled violence and repression in Haiti by boat. Although most were repatriated to Haiti by the U.S. government, many entered the United States as refugees. Most Haitians were primarily economic refugees from the grinding poverty of Haiti, the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere.

Each year, dozens of Cubans risk their lives on inner tubes and make-shift boats to escape the political and harsh repression of the island's regime. Notable cases include the young boy Elian Gonzalez whose mother died at sea before reaching US shores and the group of Cubans who made a boat out of a 1950's Chevy.

Although much has been made about the uneven treatment of Cubans and Haitians, the root reasons for migration are fundamentally different.


Main article: Palestinian refugee

In the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, a Palestinian refugee is a refugee from Palestine created by the Palestinian Exodus, which Palestinians call the Nakba (نكبة, meaning "disaster").

Many Palestinians had already become refugees by the time neighboring Arab states attacked the newly established State of Israel, and the exodus continued during the war until after the armistice that ended it (see Palestinian Exodus.) These refugees, the great majority of whom had lived there for generations, were generally not permitted to return to their homes.

The final estimate of their number was 711,000, according to the United Nations Concilation Commission (General Progress Report and Supplementary Report of the United Nations Conciliation Commission for Palestine, Covering the Period from 11 December 1949 to 23 October 1950, [4]).

Palestinian refugees from 1948 and their descendants do not come under the 1951 convention or UNHCR, but under the earlier UNRWA agency. As such they are the only refugee population legally defined to include descendants of refugees. However, many other refugee populations (notably the Biharis and Sahrawis) have remained in refugee camps for more than a generation, making their children refugees effectively if not legally.

The Palestinian refugees claim a right of return, based on Article 13 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which reads: "Everyone has the right to leave any country including his own, and to return to his country."

Palestinian refugee camps are in:

  • Gaza, 8 camps, 478,854 refugees
  • Jordan, 10 camps, 304,430 refugees
  • Lebanon, 12 camps, 225,125 refugees
  • Syria, 10 camps, 119,776 refugees
  • West Bank, 19 camps, 176,514 refugees

Historical refugee crises

Huguenot refugees

After the signing of the Edict of Fontainebleau in 1685, which outlawed Protestantism in France, hundreds of thousands of Huguenots fled to England, the Netherlands, Switzerland, Denmark and Prussia.

Armenian refugees during Armenian Genocide

During World War I, the Young Turk Ottoman government of Turkey deportated and murdered hundreds of thousands of Armenians and Assyrians, accusing them of collaboration with the Allies.The victims fled the country mainly to Russia. [5]

Jewish diaspora during WWII

The Nazi persecution culminated in the Holocaust of European Jewry. The British Mandate of Palestine prohibited Jewish immigration to the Land of Israel. The Bermuda Conference, Evian Conference and other attempts failed to resolve the problem of Jewish refugees, a fact widely used in Nazi propaganda.

Bengali Refugees in India in 1971

As a result of the Bangladesh Liberation War, on 27 March 1971, Prime Minister of India, Indira Gandhi, expressed full support of her Government to the Bangladeshi struggle for freedom. The Bangladesh-India border was opened to allow the tortured and panic-stricken Bengalis safe shelter in India. The governments of West Bengal, Bihar, Assam, Meghalaya and Tripura established refugee camps along the border. Exiled Bangladeshi army officers and voluntary workers from India immediately started using these camps for recruitment and training of freedom fighters (members of Mukti Bahini).

As the massacres in East Pakistan escalated an estimated 10 million refugees fled to India causing financial hardship and instability in that country.

Hutu Refugees

Refugee camp in Zaire, 1994
Refugee camp in Zaire, 1994

Following the end of the Rwandan Genocide in July 1994, 100 days after it started, approximately two million Hutu refugees — some of whom participated in the genocide and feared Tutsi retribution — fled to neighboring Burundi, Tanzania, Uganda, and Zaire. Thousands of them died in epidemics of cholera and dysentery that swept the refugee camps. The Rwandan genocide and the resulting large numbers of refugees destabilized the regional balance of power along the Zairean border, resulting in the start of the First Congo War, which set the stage for the Second Congo War that continues to trouble the region.

World Refugee Day

World Refugee Day occurs on June 20. The day was created in 2000 by a special United Nations General Assembly Resolution. June 20 had previously been commemorated as African Refugee Day in a number of African countries.

In the United Kingdom World Refugee Day is celebrated as the start of Refugee Week. Refugee Week is a nationwide festival designed to promote understanding and to celebrate the cultural contibutions of refugees, and features many events such as music, dance and theatre.

Common medical problems in refugees

Apart from physical wounds or starvation, a large percentage of refugees develops symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or depression. These long-term mental problems can severly impede the functionality of the person in everyday situations; it makes matters even worse for displaced persons who are confronted with a new environment and challenging situations.

Among other symptoms, post-traumatic stress disorder involves anxiety, over-alertness, sleeplessness, chronic fatigue syndrome, motoric difficulties, failing short term memory, amnesia, nightmares and sleep-paralysis. Flashbacks are characteristic to the disorder: The patient experiences the traumatic event, or pieces of it, again and again. Depression is also characteristic for PTSD-patients and may also occur without accompanying PTSD.

PTSD was diagnosed in 34.1% of the Palestinian children, most of whom were refugees, males, and working. The participants were 1,000 children aged 12 to 16 years from governmental, private, and United Nations Relief Work Agency UNRWA schools in East Jerusalem and various governorates in the West Bank.1

Another study showed that 28.3% of Bosnian refugee women had symptoms of PTSD three or four years after their arrival in Sweden. These women also had significantly higher risks of symptoms of depression, anxiety, and psychological distress than Swedish-born women. For depression the odds ratio was 9.50 among Bosnian women.2

A study by the Department of Pediatrics and Emergency Medicine at the Boston University School of Medicine demonstrated that twenty percent of Sudanese refugee minors living in the United States had a diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder. They were also more likely to have worse scores on all the Child Health Questionnaire subscales. 3

Many more studies illustrate the problem. One meta-study was conducted by the psychiatry department of Oxford University at Warneford Hospital in the United Kingdom. 20 surveys were analyzed, providing results for 6,743 adult refugees from seven countries. In the larger studies, 9% were diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and 5% with major depression, with evidence of much psychiatric comorbidity. Five surveys of 260 refugee children from three countries yielded a prevalence of 11% for post-traumatic stress disorder. According to this study, refugees resettled in Western countries could be about ten times more likely to have PTSD than age-matched general populations in those countries. Worldwide, tens of thousands of refugees and former refugees resettled in Western countries probably have post-traumatic stress disorder. 4


Note 1: Khamis, V. Post-traumatic stress disorder among school age Palestinian children. Child Abuse Negl. 2005 Jan;29(1):81-95.
Note 2: Sundquist K, Johansson LM, DeMarinis V, Johansson SE, Sundquist J. Posttraumatic stress disorder and psychiatric co-morbidity: symptoms in a random sample of female Bosnian refugees. Eur Psychiatry. 2005 Mar;20(2):158-64.
Note 3: Geltman PL, Grant-Knight W, Mehta SD, Lloyd-Travaglini C, Lustig S, Landgraf JM, Wise PH. The "lost boys of Sudan": functional and behavioral health of unaccompanied refugee minors re-settled in the United States. Arch Pediatr Adolesc Med. 2005 Jun;159(6):585-91.
Note 4: Fazel M, Wheeler J, Danesh J. Prevalence of serious mental disorder in 7000 refugees resettled in western countries: a systematic review. Lancet. 2005 Apr 9-15;365(9467):1309-14.

See also


  • Michael Robert Marrus, The Unwanted: European refugees in the 20th century, Oxford University Press 1985
  • Mark Bixler, "The Lost Boys of Sudan: An American Story of the Refugee Experience", University of Georgia Press 2005 - good resources with many links
  • Refugee number statistics taken from 'Refugee', Encyclopaedia Britannica CD Edition 2004.

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