United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees

Protecting Refugees - Q&A


A refugee is 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..."

The 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees

How are refugees protected?

Governments normally guarantee the basic human rights and physical security of their citizens. But when civilians become refugees this safety net disappears. UNHCR's main role in pursuing international protection is to ensure that states are aware of, and act on, their obligations to protect refugees and people seeking asylum. However, it is not a supranational organization and cannot be considered as a substitute for government responsibility. Countries may not forcibly return refugees to a territory where they face danger, nor discriminate between groups of refugees.

What are the obligations of a refugee?

Refugees are required to respect the laws and regulations of their country of asylum.

What rights does a refugee have?

A refugee has the right to safe asylum. However, international protection comprises more than physical safety. Refugees should receive at least the same rights and basic help as any other foreigner who is a legal resident, including freedom of thought, of movement and freedom from torture and degrading treatment. Economic and social rights are equally applicable. Refugees should have access to medical care, schooling and the right to work.

In certain circumstances when adequate government resources are not immediately available, including the sudden arrival of large numbers of uprooted people, UNHCR and other international organizations provide assistance such as financial grants, food, tools and shelter, schools and clinics. With income-generating and skill training projects, UNHCR makes every effort to ensure that refugees become self-sufficient as quickly as possible.

Who decides who is a refugee?

Governments establish status determination procedures to decide a person's legal standing and rights in accordance with their own legal systems. UNHCR may offer advice as part of its mandate to promote refugee law, protect refugees and supervise the implementation of the 1951 Refugee Convention. The agency advocates that governments adopt a rapid, flexible and liberal process, recognizing how difficult it often is to document persecution.

UNHCR's Executive Committee sets non-binding guidelines; and the agency's "Handbook on Procedures and Criteria for Determining Refugee Status" is an authoritative interpretation of the 1951 Convention. In countries which are not party to international refugee instruments but which request UNHCR's assistance, the agency may determine a person's refugee status and offer its protection and assistance.

Are people fleeing war or war-related conditions refugees?

The 1951 UN Refugee Convention, the main international instrument of refugee law, does not specifically address the issue of civilians fleeing conflict, though in recent years major refugee movements have resulted from civil wars, and ethnic, tribal and religious violence.

However, UNHCR considers that people fleeing such conditions should be considered refugees, if their own state is unwilling or unable to protect them. Regional instruments such as Africa's OAU Convention and the Cartagena Declaration in Latin America support this stance.

Some countries argue that civilians fleeing generalized war or who fear persecution by non-state groups such as militias and rebels, should not be given formal refugee status. It is UNHCR's view that the origin of the persecution should not be decisive in determining refugee status. The key issue should be whether a person deserves international protection because it is not available in his or her country of origin.

Who helps the internally displaced?

Internally displaced people (IDPs) flee their homes for the same reasons as refugees, but remain within their own country and are thus subject to the laws of that state. Though it does not have a specific mandate in this field, UNHCR has been assisting several million of the global population of IDPs for many years.

As part of an evolving global approach towards the internally displaced, UNHCR works closely with other organizations and United Nations sister agencies, in particular applying its expertise in the fields of protection, emergency shelter and camp management.

Must every refugee undergo individual status determination?

People who apply for refugee status normally need to establish individually that their fear of persecution is well-founded. However, during mass exoduses individual screening may be impossible. In such circumstances, particularly when civilians are fleeing for similar reasons, it may be appropriate to declare 'group' determination of refugee status, whereby each person in the group is considered as a refugee prima facie – in other words, in the absence of evidence to the contrary.

How does UNHCR distinguish between refugees and economic migrants?

Economic migrants normally leave a country voluntarily to seek a better life. Should they elect to return home, they would continue to receive the protection of their government. Refugees flee because of the threat of persecution and cannot return safely to their homes in the prevailing circumstances.

May governments deport people who are found not to be refugees?

People who have been determined, under a fair procedure, not to be in need of international protection are in a situation similar to that of illegal aliens, and may be deported. However, UNHCR does urge that protection be granted to people who come from countries devastated by armed conflicts or generalized violence. The agency also advocates that rejected asylum-seekers be granted the right to an appeal before being deported.

Can a draft evader be a refugee?

Every country has the right to ask its citizens to bear arms in periods of national emergency. However, citizens should have an equal right to conscientious objection. In cases where the option of conscientious objection is not observed, or where a conflict violates international norms, draft evaders who fear persecution on political or other grounds may be eligible for refugee status.

Can a war criminal be a refugee?

People who have participated in war crimes and violations of international humanitarian and human rights law – including the crime of terrorism – are specifically excluded from the protection accorded to refugees.

In practice, especially during a mass exodus, it is sometimes difficult to separate people suspected of serious human rights violations from bona fide refugees especially for a humanitarian organization such as UNHCR which is neither a police force nor a judicial body. In the 1990s, for instance, known violators were living in the huge refugee camps for Rwandans established in surrounding countries.

The most viable solution is to provide and support initiatives such as the international tribunals for Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia, to bring war criminals to justice. UNHCR is obligated to share with these and other relevant UN organizations pertinent facts on such issues, while sensitively handling information which refugees have divulged to field staff.

Can a soldier be a refugee?

A refugee is a civilian. A person who continues to pursue armed action against his or her country of origin from the country of asylum cannot be considered a refugee.

Is a person who fears persecution because of sexual orientation eligible for refugee status?

Lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) persons  may be eligible for refugee status on the basis of persecution because of their membership of a particular social group. It is the policy of UNHCR that people facing attack, inhumane treatment, or serious discrimination because of their sexual orientation, and whose governments are unable or unwilling to protect them, may be recognized as refugees.

What is temporary protection?

Nations at times offer 'temporary protection' when they face a sudden mass influx of people, as happened during the conflicts in the former Yugoslavia in the early 1990s, and later in Kosovo, when their regular asylum systems would be overwhelmed. In such circumstances people can be speedily admitted to safe countries, but without any guarantee of permanent asylum.

Thus 'temporary protection' can work to the advantage of both governments and asylum-seekers in specific circumstances. But it only complements, and does not substitute for, the wider protection measures, including formal refugee status, offered by the 1951 Convention.

Temporary protection should not be prolonged, and after a reasonable period of time UNHCR advocates that people benefiting from this should be given the right to claim full refugee status. Those rejected should, nonetheless, be allowed to remain in a country of asylum until it is safe to return.

What can UNHCR do to protect refugees from physical assault?

Refugees, especially the elderly, women and children, are often vulnerable to violence. Rape, in particular, is a common element in the pattern of persecution that drives refugee families from their homes, as civilians increasingly become the deliberate targets of sectarian warfare. Civilians may be sexually assaulted during their flight and on arrival in their country of asylum, by officials, locals, or other refugees.

UNHCR field staff attempt to prevent conditions that encourage such assaults, offering victims special care and ensuring a proper legal follow-up which may include trials for suspected perpetrators. Preventive measures include improving camp layout or upgrading basic facilities such as lighting and walls and encouraging refugees to institute night patrols.

What is UNHCR's policy on resettlement?

Voluntary repatriation is the preferred long-term solution for the majority of refugees. However, because of an ongoing threat of persecution or other reasons, some refugees cannot repatriate and are unable to live permanently in their country of asylum. In those circumstances, resettlement in a third country may be the only feasible option.

Can refugees request resettlement in a specific country?

In normal circumstances, no. But in the interests of family reunification, refugees may request resettlement in countries where their close family members are already living.

Are there asylum guidelines on stowaways or people rescued at sea?

Shipmasters have an obligation under international law to rescue any people in distress at sea. In some cases, such as the exodus of Vietnamese boat people, such people were asylum-seekers. Clandestine stowaways may also be asylum-seekers.

Individuals rescued at sea ought to be disembarked in a safe place, usually the nearest or next port of call, where they should be admitted, at least on a temporary basis. Some flag states of rescuing ships have on occasion provided guarantees of resettlement for rescued people.

There is no binding international convention relating to stowaway asylum-seekers and their reception varies widely. UNHCR advocates that, wherever possible, stowaways should be allowed to disembark at the first safe port of call, where their refugee status may be determined by the local authorities. They should never be disembarked at, or or forced to travel on to, a place where they would be at risk.

In such cases, UNHCR officials try to arrange an on-board interview and if the asylum-seeker is found to be a refugee, they assist in finding a permanent solution.

How can unaccompanied children find their families?

An unaccompanied minor is one "who is separated from both parents and for whose care no person can be found who by law or custom has primary responsibility." The number of unaccompanied child refugees varies widely. It often comprises 2 to 5 percent of a refugee population.

UNHCR works with other agencies such as the Red Cross, UNICEF and Save the Children, to ensure that unaccompanied children are identified and registered, and their families traced.

What does UNHCR do to prevent statelessness?

The right to a nationality is widely recognized in international law and constitutes a status from which other rights may derive. However, millions of people worldwide remain stateless especially, in some countries that were formerly part of the Soviet Union. The problem is particularly acute among children of parents of mixed origin, or who are born in a country other than their parents' country of origin, since they do not necessarily gain citizenship of the place where they are born.

There are several international documents which deal with the issue including the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the 1954 Convention relating to the Status of Stateless Persons. The 1961 Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness  underlines that a person may not be deprived of nationality on racial, ethnic, religious or political grounds. It sketches out measures to prevent statelessness resulting from the transfer of territory, and establishes rules for the granting of nationality to people born in a country who would otherwise be stateless.

The UN General Assembly entrusted UNHCR with overseeing both the 1954 ans 1961 Conventions. In 2003, the results of a UNHCR survey of 191 countries helped for the first time to build a comprehensive global picture that will assist governments, with UNHCR's help, to expand or introduce new laws and projects to tackle the problem.

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