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World Refugee Day: What is a refugee?

This Friday, June 20th, is World Refugee Day. This year, the theme is “protection.”

But who is a refugee? And why do they need protection?

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 or her nationality, and is unable to or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself or herself of the protection of that country or return there because there is fear of persecution.” (from the UN Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees 1951 and Protocol 1967).

A refugee is someone who has crossed an internationally recognized border; they are no longer in their home country. So, while Hurricane Katrina survivors fled Louisiana, they did not leave the United States. They were not refugees; they were internally displaced people. Similarly, the survivors of Cyclone Nargis in Burma/Myanmar are not refugees; they also are internally displaced people.

Why does this matter? What’s in a word? Being a refugee means you have some particular rights, which are spelled out in the 1951 Refugee Convention. Among those rights: the right to seek asylum (to ask another country to let you into their land, to escape persecution or the possibility of persecution, for safety and protection); the right not to be forcibly returned to your home country, until you feel it is safe to do so (“the principle of non-refoulement”). In addition, countries that signed and adopted the 1951 Convention agreed to ensure that refugees in their midst will be treated humanely and will be given what they need, in order to live with dignity and integrity, the right of all human beings. States agreed that they would provide safety to refugees, to protect them.

Being a refugee also means that there is an international organization which has an obligation to safeguard your rights, the UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR). It is the mandate of UNHCR to oversee the implementation of the 1951 Convention and to speak out when refugees are in peril and in need of protection. It is also their responsibility to negotiate with countries who signed the Convention, to ensure that these States meet their obligations to refugees found in their territory.

Being called a refugee means that even though you are a stranger in a new land, you still have rights and states have a responsibility to protect and fulfill these rights.

To learn more about what Catholic Relief Services is doing to assist Iraqi refugees and ensure protection for them, go to the CRS website and read “Strangers in a Strange Land.”

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