In 1951, in the wake of World War II, the United Nations created the Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees. In Article 1A they defined 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 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.”
In addition, Article 14(1) of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states “Everyone has the right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution.”
Put simply, a refugee is a person forced to flee their home country for their own safety and to escape persecution due to their race, religion, nationality, politics or social grouping. In the future, this definition may include climatic and environmental refugees, fleeing the effects of climate change but for now, most refugees are fleeing civil war, foreign invasion or violations of human rights.
Refugees, by definition, are not ‘illegal immigrants’, as the reasons for fleeing their own countries are accepted as exempting them from the unlawful elements of entering a country illegally. The countries who have ratified the 1951 Convention and its subsequent 1967 Protocol are obliged under international law to protect refugees who have ended up within their borders and are required to co-operate with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and assist the UNHCR in its humanitarian mission to protect and support refugees.
A refugee is first an ‘asylum seekers’ ie someone seeking international protection before their claim for refugee status can be determined. When asylum seekers enter a country seeking refuge, they are assessed before being officially recognised as ‘refugees’ under the UN Convention.
148 nations are signatories to the UN Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees. Countries which have not signed up include Malaysia, Indonesia, Burma, Thailand, Laos, Vietnam, Taiwan, Bangladesh, India, Nepal, Bhutan, North Korea, Mongolia, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Saudi Arabia, Oman, Qatar, Libya, the United Arab Emirates, Lebanon, Jordan, Eritrea, Western Sahara, Cuba, and Guyana.
(The issue of refugees and asylum seekers is a hot topic in Australia where Malaysia’s and Indonesia’s status as non-signatories to the Convention has created significant problems for the Australian Labour government’s controversial plan to process refugees offshore in these countries, which are prone to people smuggling and human rights violations.
Nauru, recent signatory, which was part of the previous Liberal government’s ‘Pacific Solution’, a holding camp / detention centre where asylum seekers would be processed, keeping them off-shore until full refugee status could be approved.) .
In 2011, the number of refugees who were “of concern” to the UNHCR stood at 10.5 million. (this doesn’t include a further 4.8 million registered refugees who are taken care of by the United Nations Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA) in about 60 camps in the Middle East. UNRWA has cared for displaced Palestinians since 1949).