Definitions

When I started this journey I found some of the terminology confusing and contradictory. There are a lot of terms in the public domain used to describe refugees that are frankly wrong. Here are the definitions that relate to the information in More to the Story.

The 1951 Refugee Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, established by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), is the key legal instrument in international refugee law and protection. It defines who is a refugee, their rights and the legal obligations of state parties. The 1967 Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees removed geographical and temporal restrictions from the earlier Convention.

In these two documents, a REFUGEE is defined as any person who:

“owing to 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 or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country; or who, not having a nationality and being outside the country of his former habitual residence as a result of such events, is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to return to it.”

The UNHCR also provides the following definitions:

ASYLUM SEEKER: An asylum seeker is a person seeking protection as a refugee, but someone who has not yet had their claim definitively evaluated by an official.

STATELESSNESS: There are at least 10 million stateless people in dozens of countries around the world. Statelessness refers to the condition of someone who is not considered as a national by any country. It occurs because of discrimination against certain groups, redrawing of borders in countries and gaps in nationality laws.

INTERNALLY DISPLACED PERSON: Internally displaced persons (IDPs) are among the world’s most vulnerable people. Unlike refugees, they have not crossed an international border to find sanctuary but have remained inside their home countries. Even if they have fled for similar reasons as refugees (armed conflict, generalised violence, human rights violations), IDPs legally remain under the protection of their own government—even though that government might be the cause of their flight. They are not eligible for protection under the same international system as refugees. Also, there is no single international body entrusted with their protection and assistance.

MIGRANT: At the international level, no universally accepted definition for ‘migrant’ exists. The International Organization for Migration describes the term ‘migrant’ in the following way:

“The term migrant is usually understood to cover all cases where the decision to migrate was taken freely by the individual concerned for reasons of ‘personal convenience’ and without intervention of an external compelling factor; it therefore applies to persons, and family members, moving to another country or region to better their material or social conditions and improve the prospect for themselves or their family.”

ECONOMIC MIGRANT: The UNHCR, like the International Organisation for Migration, describes economic migrants as people who make a conscious choice to leave their country of origin and can return there without a problem. If things do not work out as they had hoped or if they get homesick, it is safe for them to return home.

ECONOMIC REFUGEE: This term is not correct. In international law, the term ‘refugee’ has a specific meaning (see above). According to the UNHCR, the accurate description of people who leave their country or place of residence because they want to seek a better life is ‘economic migrant’.

ILLEGAL IMMIGRANT: This is a term used in Australia to describe people who enter a country without meeting the legal requirements for entry or residence. The Frequently Asked Questions section on the UNHCR website states:

“refugees often arrive with barest necessities and without personal documents. This is because governments refuse to issue passports to political dissidents or imprison them if they apply. Refugees may not be able to obtain the necessary documents when trying to escape and may have no choice but to resort to illegal means of escape … therefore if the person has a well-founded fear of persecution they should be viewed as a refugee not labelled an ‘illegal immigrant’”