According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) website there were 37.5 million refugees in 2005 and 65.3 million refugees in 2015. This is an unprecedented global situation, the highest figure ever recorded (Betts and Collier, 2017). But who does the term refugee refer to?
The Refugee Convention 1951 (UNHCR online) defines a refugee as a 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 to or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail him/her of the protection of that country…”
The UNHCR Global Trends 2015 Report (Hoogte and Richardson, 2016) records that wars, conflicts and persecution have forced more people than at any other time since records began to flee their homes and seek refuge and safety elsewhere. Up of 40.8 million people are displaced internally within their own countries, there are 21.3 million refugees and 3.2 million asylum seekers (people who have applied for refugee status and are awaiting the result) in industrialised countries. This means that 1 in every 113 people globally is an asylum seeker, internally displaced or a refugee. Syria (5.9 million), Afghanistan (2.7 million) and Somalia (1.1 million) produced nearly half of the world’s refugees in 2015. Turkey, with 1.6 million Syrian refugees was the top hosting country in 2015, while in the EU the countries with the biggest volume of asylum seekers were Germany and Sweden.
The UNHCR Report also notes that ninety percent of the world’s refugees are from countries close to conflict. This means that they are fleeing war and danger. It is therefore argued (Betts and Collier, 2017) that the very concept of who a refugee is needs to be redefined. The Refugee Convention 1951 restricts the definition of a refugee to a person who is fleeing “persecution”. Refugees are people fleeing persecution, but also the disorder, danger and insecurity of war and terrorism (Betts and Collier, 2017). Refugees are people looking for safety from danger to their lives, sanctuary while they can also earn a living until they can safely return home. This was the original role of the UNHCR, to provide protection for refugees and to find long-term solutions to their plight. However, the definition of a refugee by the UN Refugee Convention 1951 is no longer adequate because it does not clearly state who is a refugee today, it does not say who should provide safety, and it does not offer a long-term strategy (Betts and Collier, 2017).
People fleeing danger remain vulnerable and in need of safety and protection. On 23rd December, 2016 it was reported on BBC News (online) that over 5000 people had died in 2016 on their journeys to find safety. It was reported in The Times (11 July 2017) that already 2,150 people have died attempting to cross the Mediterranean this year. A newspaper photo of Alan Kurdi, a Syrian boy refugee, whose deceased body was found on a beach has become a symbol of this monstrous situation.
So who is a refugee? A more accurate definition of refugee may also help to state who needs to help refugees and help nations to create pathways to rescue and protect refugees.
For me a refugee is someone whose life is in danger (as a result of war, violence, terrorism, persecution) and who has lost the protection of his/her own country (internally or outside). It includes also people who flee for the safety of their lives because of deep poverty, natural disaster or severe weather conditions. Refugees are human beings seeking and bringing the warmth of human relationships. Expect them to enrich you not diminish you.
The current refugee situation is crying out for an end to war and violence, for respectful dialogue between people of different religions and ideologies, equality between rich and poor, and respect for the earth and environment. Refugees are human beings. Refugees have a moral right to migrate for safety. Every nation has a moral duty to rescue and protect refugees. We all have moral obligations to welcome refugees and give them sanctuary.
People of different faiths, beliefs and ideologies can work together to towards these goals.
BETTS, A. and COLLIER, P. (2017). Refuge: Transforming a Broken Refugee System. UK: Penguin
HOOGTE, H. and RICHARDSON, W. (2016). Global Trends: Forced Displacements in 2015. UNHCR: Geneva.