Until 1951, there was no commonly accepted term for people fleeing persecution. People who fled their country were known as ‘stateless people’, ‘migrants’ or ‘refugees’. There were no universally recognised definitions for these categories and different countries treated these people in different ways.
Following the mass migrations caused by the Second World War (particularly in Europe), it was decided that there needed to be a common understanding of which people needed protection and how they should be protected. This resulted in the development of the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees, which defines a refugee as:
Any person who owing to a 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 his/her nationality and is unable, or owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself/herself of the protection of that country.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) is mandated by the United Nations to lead and coordinate international action for the worldwide protection of refugees and the resolution of refugee problems. Its purpose is to safeguard the rights and wellbeing of refugees and seek lasting solutions to their plight.
The term ‘refugee’ is often used to refer to a range of groups which are not actually refugees under international law. For example, the terms ‘asylum seeker’ and ‘refugee’ are often used interchangeably, but the two groups have different legal status. An asylum seeker is a person who has sought protection as a refugee, but whose claim for refugee status has not yet been assessed.Some asylum seekers are refugees, others are not. Those asylum seekers who are found to be refugees are entitled to international protection and assistance. Those who are found not to be refugees, nor to be in need of any other form of international protection, may be sent back to their country of origin.
Internally displaced persons (IDPs) are often referred to as refugees. However, while refugees and IDPs may flee for similar reasons (for example, armed conflict or persecution), their legal status is very different. Unlike refugees, IDPs remain within the borders of their home countries and legally remain under the protection of their own government, even in cases where the government’s actions are the cause of their flight. A person cannot be formally recognised as a refugee unless they are outside their home country. The term ‘refugee’ is also used colloquially to refer to people who have been displaced due to a natural disaster (such as an earthquake or volcanic eruption) or environmental change. This usage is also incorrect.
Another common misnomer is ‘economic refugee’. The correct term for a person who leaves their country or place of residence because they want to seek a better life is ‘economic migrant’.