Refugees and Asylum Overview


Every year, millions of people leave their homes due to various problems stemming from war, lack of opportunity, natural disasters, food insecurity, water scarcity, all in search for a better life.

As of 2016, there are roughly 65 million such displaced people in the world, according to UNHCR.

Around 27 million of those are internally displaced persons, meaning they are facing the crisis of displacement without even leaving the borders of their home country.

As of mid-year 2016 there are approximately 22.5 million refugees worldwide.

Who qualifies to be a refugee?

There are two kinds of refugees: those who are individually at risk of persecution, and those who flee generalized violence or war. The 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees covers the first group, defining a refugee as someone 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 nationality, and is unable to, or owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country.”

International and regional refugee instruments, international human rights and humanitarian law, and state practice and jurisprudence complement this definition in the Convention. These sources include as refugees those individuals who have fled due to armed conflict and war. Even though these people may not have been targeted individually, they may still be afforded the rights of refugees. While the term “climate refugees” has recently been used in popular discourse, individuals fleeing natural disaster or famine generally do not qualify for refugee status.

Who decides who is a refugee? And how?

Refugee status determination (RSD) is the process whereby the adjudicator (authorities of the host country or UNHCR) establish that an individual who seeks international protection qualifies as a refugee –– that is, whether his or her situation meets the criteria specified in the applicable refugee definition.

The primary responsibility for identifying those who come within the refugee definition, lies with the government in the host country. The UNHCR has a supervisory responsibility.

However, not all governments are capable or willing to conduct RSD up to international standards. In such instances, in about 60 countries around the world, the UNHCR carries out RSD.

Individual status determination does not always have to be carried out. For groups arriving en masse from war, they may be classified as refugees in groups.

What are refugees entitled to? What obligations are they owed and by who?

When an individual crosses an international border and seeks asylum, their host country has an obligation not to turn them back and to provide them safety, as well as certain basic rights and entitlements.

This obligation exists until a durable solution can be found for this person. There are three such durable solutions: repatriation (the individual voluntarily wishes to return to their home country when it becomes safe), local integration (the individual secures citizenship in their host country), or resettlement (being relocated to a third country other than the first country of asylum).

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