Who is a Refugee?

A refugee is someone who is in need of protection and would be at risk if they returned home.

In everyday English, the word ‘refugee’ is often used to mean people who have fled danger which could arise from war, political persecution, famine, economic crisis or natural disaster.

Under international law, however, the word refugee has a very precise meaning. Governments and the United Nations decide whether a person is a refugee status using the 1951 United Nations Convention on Refugees. According to the convention, a refugee is 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 or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country…”

  • A person is only classified as a refugee when they are outside their own country.
  • An individual may still be a refugee even if nothing bad has happened if they are likely to be persecuted in the future.
  • It is not always countries persecuting individuals but groups within countries. An individual becomes a refugee if their country can’t protect them.
  • Mostly individual states decide whether an individual is a refugee or not and whether they should receive protection based on the UN Convention.
  • Even people who are at risk of persecution may not be recognised as refugees if they have committed serious crimes such as a war crime.

Internally displaced person

An internally displaced person (IDP) is person who has fled their home for reasons of conflict or natural disaster but remains within their country of origin (i.e. they haven’t crossed an international border).

Asylum seeker

An asylum seeker is someone who has asked to be recognised as a refugee and is waiting for the government to make a decision. They have made themselves known to the authorities and are part of an ongoing legal process.

Refused asylum seeker

A refused asylum seeker is someone who has had their claim for asylum turned down. The Home Office has decided that they do not fall under the definition of a refugee according to the 1951 UN Convention.

Individual refugee stories