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- This article is for the group of people as defined by international law (See also refugee law and right of asylum). 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).
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 United Nations (UN) Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and 1967 Protocol, a signatory 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) .
Globally, about 17 countries (Australia, Benin, Brazil, Burkina Faso, Canada, Chile, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Ireland, Mexico, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Sweden, the United Kingdom, and the United States ) 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.
Refugees are a subgroup of the broader category of displaced persons. Environmental refugees (people displaced because of environmental problems such as drought) are not included in the definition of "refugee" under international law, as well as internally displaced people. According to international refugee law, a refugee is someone who seeks refuge in a foreign country because of war and violence, or out of fear of persecution "on account of race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or membership in a particular social group" (to use the terminology from U.S. law).
Some countries, such as the U.S., make a legal distinction between a "refugee" (who is awarded refugee status offshore, based on membership in a particular group, such as war refugees) and an "asylee" (whose case is decided individually, usually from within the U.S.). Other countries, such as Canada, make no such legal distinction between the two, whether status is granted from within, by courts, or overseas by consular officials.
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.
On the other hand, fraudulent requests in an environment of lax enforcement could lead to improper classification as refugee, resulting in the diversion of resources from those with a genuine need. The percentage of asylum/refugee seekers who do not meet the international standards of special-needs refugee, and for whom resettlement is deemed proper, varies from country to country. Failed asylum applicants are most often deported, sometimes after imprisonment or detention, as in the United Kingdom.
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, and under a policy announced in April 2006, will resettle those found to be legitimate asylees but only in countries other than Australia.
- Main article: 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.
- The 1951 United Nations Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees;
- The 1967 Protocol relating to the Status of Refugees;
- The 1969 OAU Convention Governing the Specific Aspects of Refugee Problems in Africa
The first international action concerning refugee was by the League of Nations' Commission for Refugees. Led by Fridtjof Nansen, the Commission oversaw the repatriation and, when necessary the resettlement, of 400,000 refugees and ex-prisoners of war, most of whom were stranded in Russia at the end of World War I. It established camps in Turkey in 1922 to deal with a refugee crisis in that country and to help prevent disease and hunger. It also established the Nansen passport as a means of identification for stateless peoples. In 1938, the Nansen International Office for Refugees was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for its efforts to establish the Nansen passports.
- 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 (which itself succeeded the League of Nations' Commissions for Refugees).
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 Côte d'Ivoire to assist and provide services to IDPs.
- Main article: Refugee camps
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.
Refugees may be distinguished in various groups, although the usual definition adopted derives from the United Nations' 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees. They may be crudely divided into "economic migrants" and asylum seekers, although recently new categories such as "climate refugees" have been forged.
- Main article: Boat people
The term "boat people" 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.
The main danger to a boat person is that the 'boat' he or she is sailing in may actually be anything that floats and is large enough for passengers. Although such makeshift craft can result in tragedy, in 2003 a group of Cuban refugees attempted (unsuccessfully, but safely) to reach Florida in a 1950s pickup truck made buoyant 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.
Historical refugee crises
Refugee movement in Europe and the Middle East
- Further information: Naturalization
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 (1917–1921) led to about 1,500,000 refugees, most of them aristocrats 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.
After the defeat of Germany in World War II, the Potsdam Conference authorized the expulsion of German minorities from a number of European countries (including Soviet- and Polish-annexed pre-war east Germany), 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.
After the signing of the Edict of Fontainebleau in 1685 during the Wars of Religion, which outlawed Protestantism in France, hundreds of thousands of Huguenots fled to England, the Netherlands, Switzerland, Norway, Denmark and Prussia.
- Main article: 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 genocide mainly to Russia. 
The foundation of Israel and Palestinian refugees
- Further information: Palestinian refugees
The Nazi persecution culminated in the Holocaust of European Jews. The Bermuda Conference, Evian Conference and other attempts failed to resolve the problem of Jewish refugees, a fact widely used in Nazi propaganda. Jewish immigration to Palestine had taken place between the two world wars, while the territories were under British mandate received from the League of Nations (created in 1919). Following the 1948 proclamation of the State of Israel, the first Arab-Israeli War began. Many Palestinians had already became refugees, and the Palestinian Exodus (Nakba) continued through the 1948 Arab-Israeli War and after the armistice that ended it. The great majority have remained refugees for generations as they were not permitted to return to their homes. The refugee situation and the presence of numerous refugee camps continues to be a point of contention in the Arab-Israeli conflict.
The final estimate of refugee numbers was 711,000 according to the United Nations Concilation Commission. Palestinian refugees from 1948 and their descendants do not come under the 1951 UN Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, but under the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East, which created its own criteria for refugee classification. As such they are the only refugee population legally defined to include descendants of refugees, as well as others who might otherwise be considered internally displaced persons.
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 and Sikhs (from Pakistan) for 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 giving rise to the phrase "boat people". The Vietnamese refugees 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 the 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). Many more Hmong continue to seek asylum in neighboring Thailand. 
- During the 1980s and early 1990s, 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).
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.
Indochinese boat people
Following the communist takeovers in Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos in 1975, about three million people attempted to escape in the subsequent decades. With massive influx of refugees daily, the resources of the receiving countries were severely strained. The plight of the boat people became an international humanitarian crisis. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) set up refugee camps in neighboring countries to process the boat people. The budget of the UNHCR increased from $80 million in 1975 to $500 in 1980. Partly for its work in Indochina, the UNHCR was awarded the 1981 Nobel Peace Prize.
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 (Encyclopedia 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 . (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 are below. (UNHCR, 2004 Global Refugee Trends, Table 3.) The largest number of refugees are from Sudan and have fled either the longstanding and recently concluded Sudanese Civil War or the Darfur conflict and are located mainly in Chad, Uganda, Ethiopia, and Kenya.
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.
Refugee movements in the Americas
- See also: Mariel boatlift
From 1991 through 1994, following the military coup d'état against President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, thousands of Haitians fled violence and repression by boat. Although most were repatriated to Haiti by the U.S. government, others entered the United States as refugees. Haitians were primarily regarded as economic migrants from the grinding poverty of Haiti, the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere.
The victory of the forces led by Fidel Castro in the Cuban Revolution led to a large exodus of Cubans between 1960 and 1979. Dozens of Cubans yearly continue to flee the political repression of the island's regime. Notable cases include the boy Elián González and the group of Cubans who made a boat out of a 1950's Chevy.
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 severely 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
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.
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.
- The psychology of refugees
- Displaced person
- Forced migration
- Human migration
- Internally displaced person
- Mandatory detention
- Naturalization (includes denaturalization laws)
- Population transfer
- Refugees International
- Right of asylum (and political asylum)
- Social processes
- Stateless persons
- 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.
- Convention relating to the Status of Refugees at Law-Ref.org - fully indexed and crosslinked with other documents
- soumy t.info/publications/unhcr/convention.pdf Convention and Protocol relating to the stats of refugees (pdf format document)
- Eurasylum Many relevant documents on asylum and refugee policy, immigration and human trafficking/smuggling internationally
- Forced Migration Review world's most widely read refugee magazine:published - print and online - in English, Arabic, Spanish and French
- Forced Migration Online - many relevant articles and documents
- Mental Health of Refugees
- The Lost Boys of Sudan: An American Story of the Refugee Experience - a critically acclaimed book about refugees in the U.S.
- Mission and Justice Refugee and Migrant news relating to the Asia - Pacific region.
- asylumlaw.org Online resource for asylum seekers and advocates.
- PARDS (Political Asylum Research and Documentation Service) Asylum in US, country-specific expert and documentation search.
- Refugee Health ~ Immigrant Health - Populations and Issues & Infectious Diseases - from authors of Refugee and Immigrant Health: A Handbook for Health Professionals ISBN 0521828597
- Refugee Law Project (RLP) "Part advocacy group, part research institution, part legal aid clinic, part trainer and educator," a leading Ugandan organisation working with refugees and the conflict in the North
- Protocol relating to the Status of Refugees at Law-Ref.org - fully indexed and crosslinked with other documents
- Refugee Studies Centre, University of Oxford
- Tamil Refugees & Asylum Seekers
- Refugee numbers by country
- UNHCR United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees home page
- UNHCR RefWorld access to UNHCR Country of Origin and Legal Information databases
- UNHCR Thesaurus of official terminology related to refugees
- "Seoul Train" documentary A critically acclaimed PBS documentary on North Korean refugees (Incite Productions)
- Refugee Asylum Support Project - Refugee Asylum Support Project (RASP) - Student Group at Duke University School of Law providing volunteer research, caselaw support, document translation and other assistance to those representing asylum petitioners.
- CBC Digital Archives - Boat People: A Refugee Crisis
- Diplomacy Monitor-Refugees
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