Who is a refugee?

‘Refugee’ is used commonly to refer to people who are forced to leave their homes for many reasons, including conflict and violence. Sometimes it is used to also refer to a person displaced due to a natural disaster environmental change.

The term ‘refugee’ has a more specific meaning under international law.

The most widely accepted legal definition of refugee is in the Refugee Convention, 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.

This definition has its origins in the history of the development of the Refugee Convention after World War II. It has often been criticised for being too narrow, in part because it does not expressly recognise common causes of mass displacement, such as war or general violence. It is, however, clear that people affected by conflict and violence will often satisfy the definition. As well, the definition has been criticised for restricting the grounds on which a person may be persecuted (known as the ‘Convention grounds’).

These concerns have led to more extended legal definitions of refugee, including under the Cartagena Declaration on Refugees which also includes:

persons who have fled their country because their lives, safety or freedom have been threatened by generalized violence, foreign aggression, internal conflicts, massive violation of human rights or other circumstances which have seriously disturbed public order.

Similarly, the Organisation of African Unity’s definition in the Convention governing the Specific Aspects of Refugee Problems in Africa extends the definition to include:

every person who, owing to external aggression, occupation, foreign domination or events seriously disturbing public order in either part or the whole of his country of origin or nationality, is compelled to leave his place of habitual residence in order to seek refuge in another place outside his country of origin or nationality.