What is a Refugee?


The identification of a refugee has become a controversial issue in recent decades. Typically, refugees are associated with wars and wasted tax dollars, and are often represented as foreigners being shipped into your country in mass groups. They are arguably disliked in the Global North more than any other migrant group because they epitomize dependency and neediness. In recent years, you might have seen advertisements on buses or subways from UNICEF, the International Rescue Committee, or the UNHCR. These adverts almost always display starving sick children in need of something like a warm blanket to help them survive winter.

Based on what the media tells you about refugees, it is natural to assume that the largest populations of refugees are in the places that are on the news, places that are at the center of world issues; for example, in recent years, this has primarily been Syrian refugees. However, as worthwhile as their message might be, the media often ignores the vast majority of refugee populations, including those from Guatemala, Venezuela, Cambodia, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Somalia, South Sudan, Uganda, Afghanistan, or the countless other states.

Most people assume that if a refugee population is not in the media then it is no longer a global issue. Perhaps human right violations have ceased, families can continue to live their lives in peace, and you stop worrying about the toddler on the poster that you saw on the bus ad and whether or not he’ll survive winter in a freezing refugee camp.

The vast majority of people who are considered refugees are tucked away into the margins of society, forced to live in a continuous state of limbo for decades. Africa, for example, is home to approximately one-third of the worlds refugees, most of whom are protracted, meaning they have lived in exile for more than five years (Loescher and Milner 2008). There are hundreds of thousands of people who have lived their entire lives inside a refugee camp. These people were born there, have gotten married, have had children of their own. They are forced to continued a cycle of displacement and social liminality without any conceivable hope of living legally outside of a refugee camp without the fear of violence and trauma.

So why is this so bad? The primary barrier that refugees face is the fact that they have very limited rights (Crisp 2002). Since their situation is considered “temporary” by the international world, refugees lack representation by either their host government or their nation of origin. Their entire destiny is controlled by institutions that dictate their freedom of movement (specifically the lack of), their ability to work, their freedom of speech, and most importantly, their ability to advocate for the policies that determine how and where they live.

Social scientist Peter Nyers’ suggests that the concept of the refugee is a paradoxical social construction in which people who are labeled as “refugees” are in a liminal state in which they are “included within the realm of humanity by virtue of their exclusion” (Nyers 2006: 46). Their humanity is acknowledged, but by lacking the representation of a nation-state and the rights entitled to people through citizenship, they are also denied the basic principles of humanity.

According to the 1951 Convention on the Status of Refugees, people claiming refugee status and attempting to cross an international border must be given the right to asylum, protection from violence or insecurity, and are provided with enough resources to survive until one of their “three durable solutions” can be attained (Harrell Bond 1986; Stein 1986). These solutions, in order of desirability according the UNHCR’s policies, are voluntary repatriation to their home nation, integration into their country of first asylum, or third country resettlement to places like the UK, the US, Australia, Canada, the Netherlands, or Norway.

These solutions have significant flaws, and typically fail to take into consideration complicated and long lasting conflict situations that last decades, the unwillingness and inability for countries of “first asylum” to cope with large refugee populations integrating into their society, or the unwillingness of countries around the world to accept more refugees into their resettlement programs (Elliot 2012; Jansen 2008; Loescher and Milner 2008; Milner 2009).

Refugees, in general, are perceived by society as expensive dependencies that fail to contribute any sort of value to the society that they live in. They are often stuck in a system that denies them ability to create a livelihood, and then punishes them for failing to contribute to the society that they live in.

In the twenty-first century, refugees are tucked away from the majority of human society based on the justification that their situation is “temporary” and the promise that the UNHCR and the international community will one day find a solution to their displacement. Temporary is defined by the UNHCR as five years, however, there are over 30 protracted populations in this world. Many of these refugees have spent decades in exile and are rarely provided with any other option than to return home in the face of continued violence or to wait in the hope that one day they will be resettled to a better place (Crisp 2002; UNHCR 2015).

So, the questions that the world must ask are 1) when is temporary no longer temporary, and 2) what can we do to solve a flawed outdated system that fails to acknowledge the issues faced by refugees in the twenty-first century?


Crisp, Jeff 2002. No Solutions in Sight: The Problem of Protracted Refugee Situations in Africa. UC San Diego Center for Comparative Immigration Studies, Working Paper No. 68.

Elliot, Hannah 2012. Refugee Resettlement: The View from Kenya: Findings from Field Research in Nairobi and Kakuma Refugee Camp. KNOW RESET Research Report 2012/01: Country of First Asylum. European University Institute: Robert Schuman Center for Advanced Studies.

Harrell-Bond, Barbara 1986. Imposing Aid: Emergency Assistance to Refugees. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Jansen, Bram J. 2008. Between Vulnerability and Assertiveness: Negotiating Resettlement in Kakuma Refugee Camp, Kenya. African Affairs 107(429): 569-587.

Loescher, Gil and James Milner 2008. Understanding the Problem of Protracted Refugee Situations. In Protracted Refugee Situations: Political, Human Rights, and Security Implications, eds. Gil Loescher, James Milner, Edward Newman, and Gary Troeller. Tokyo: United Nations University Press.

Milner, James 2009. Refugees, the State and the Politics of Asylum in Africa. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Nyers, Peter 2006. Rethinking Refugees: Beyond States of Emergency. New York: Routledge.

Stein, Barry N. 1986. Durable Solution for Developing Country Refugees. The International Migration Review 20(2): 264-282.

UNHCR: The UN Refugee Agency 2015. Global Trends: Forced Displacement in 2015. http://www.unhcr.org/576408cd7.pdf. Accessed October 22, 2016.


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