The 1951 United Nations Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees (the Refugee Convention), defines a refugee is defined 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 nationality, and is unable to or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country or return there because there is a fear of persecution…
A refugee, according to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) is a person who has left his or her country due to a well-founded fear of persecution because of race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or social group.
People who may have been forced to flee their homes for the same reasons as refugees but have not crossed an international border constitute a special category. These people are called internally displaced persons (IDPs). Both refugees and IDPs differ from migrants and immigrants, who freely choose to leave their country. Most refugees wish to return to their homes when the imminent danger has passed.
The forced return of a refugee is called refoulement and nonrefoulement is one of the most fundamental principles in international refugee law. This principle is laid out in Article 33 of the Refugee Convention, which says that no state “shall expel or return (refouler in French) a refugee in any manner whatsoever to the frontiers of territories where his life or freedom would be threatened on account of his race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion.”
When crisis such as natural disasters and armed conflicts force thousands of people flee their home countries, their numbers can overwhelm host countries, even with help from agencies like the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, the Red Cross and Red Crescent, and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) like Doctors without Borders or Save the Children. In such cases, refugees are often settled in camps with temporary shelter and makeshift accommodations. However, when home conditions remain too dangerous, refugees can live for months and even years in these camps, which are often dangerous and unhealthy. In these extended cases most refugees seek to find ways to work and to educate their children, efforts that put further burdens on the economies and social services of the host country.
Related Human Rights Instruments
- Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR, 1948): Article 14: Everyone has the right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution.
- Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees (Refugee Convention, 1951)
- Geneva Convention Relative to the Protection of Civilian Persons in Time of War (1949): Articles 44 and 70: Protects refugees during war. Refugees cannot be treated as “enemy aliens.”
- Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CAT, 1984): Article 3 forbids a state forcibly to return (“refoulement”) a person to another state “where there are substantial grounds for believing that he would be in danger of being subjected to torture.”
 For a more detailed discussion of the right to asylum, see Understanding Human Rights: Manual on Human Rights Education, p. 463: http://www.etc-graz.at/typo3/fileadmin/user_upload/ETC-Hauptseite/manual/versionen/english_3rd_edition/Manual_2012_FINAL.pdf.