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Citizenship

What does it really mean to be a refugee?

Flickr: EU/ECHO/Malini Morzaria

There have been a lot of headlines in the news recently dealing with "refugees". The Burundi refugees in Tanzania, the Royingha refugees caught at sea off the coast of Thailand, and of course, the refugees fleeing to Europe across the Mediterranean Sea are just a few of the cases around the world.

For me, stories about refugees are some of the saddest out there. These people have been ripped from their homes and there’s no telling when or if they can go back. On top of that, the often have very little resources at their disposal in their new “homes” so even though they may be safe from the conflict they fled from, there are a number of other challenges to put their lives at risk.

The United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) estimates that there are 51 million people who have been displaced from their homes. Within this group, there are four different distinctions to the “refugee umbrella” that the UNCHR uses. These include refugees, internally displaced persons (IDPs), asylum-seekers, and stateless people. It is important to understand the differences in these definitions because it changes how the crisis is addressed.


1. Refugees

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A refugee is someone who must escape one’s current state of living and seek sanctuary in another country. Refugees often flee in large numbers across international waters or into neighboring countries to find safety. These situations are hard to manage because the sudden surge in population is hard for the receiving countries to take on and it puts a stress on their resources, and sometimes they do not have adequate resources to make it any safer.

Unlike other migrants, however, these groups are only considered true refugees when they fit within this defition , provided by the UNHCR: 

"A refugee is someone who has been forced to flee his or her country because of persecution, war, or violence. A refugee has a well-founded fear of persecution for reasons of race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a particular social group. Most likely, they cannot return home or are afraid to do so. War and ethnic, tribal and religious violence are leading causes of refugees fleeing their countries."

2. Internally Displaced Persons

Refugees_UN Photo.jpgImage: Flickr: UN Photo

An internally displaced person faces similar danger that a refugee does, the only difference is that these groups have not crossed international borders. While the displaced group does not put any direct stress on neighboring countries, it does not mean necessarily that they are able to find safety within a different part of their country. Sometimes it means that their homes were destroyed and they were forced to go elsewhere, yet still followed by the possibility of conflict and persecution.

Refugees are often discussed more because their crisis affects more than one country.  However, there are actually almost twice as many IDPs around the world. In 2013, there were 16.7 refugees and 33.3 million IDPs.

3. Asylum Seekers

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Asylum seekers are easily confused with “refugees”. Unlike those who have refugee status, asylum seekers flee to a new country where they must prove their need to flee their home. In countries like the US, it's an incredibly difficult for aslyum seekers to make their case and become asylees.

Refugees typically flee in groups to avoid natural disaster or violence. In those cases, the events are so widespread it is clear that they are fleeing from a life-threatening situation.

Asylum seekers, on the other hand, often travel in smaller groups. Their cases typically take a lot of time to review becuase they must prove they faced persecution in their own state. 

4. Stateless people

refugeesImage: Flickr: UN Photo

Statelessness means to be without a nationality or a citizenship to any country. It occurs when a government refuses to recognize an individual or group as citizens. In reality, it means that they are unable to confirm their existence through any documentation, which means they have no legitimate way to participate in society and make a living for themselves.


When there are a large number of refugees, IDPs, asylum seekers, and stateless people, it can becomee a serious issue as few countries want to take the responsibility of supporting them. It is understandable that a sudden surge of people, in the tens of thousands range, can put a huge stress on health, food, and water resources, which is not an ideal situation for any host country.

But too often these groups are looked at as the “bad guys” when in reality they’re victims. The stigma against migrants in general is very bad because of the perception that most move to a country illegally and without proper documentation. But the reality is that when most people flee to seek refuge elsewhere, it’s because they are in a life-threatening situation.

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The Burundi population is currently avoiding political violence that is all too familiar to the country. They find themselves now, crammed into Tanzanian villages where resources are so stressed that cholera and diarrhea are starting to become an issue. That doesn’t sound like a situation I’d choose to be unless it was the best option I had.

The European migration crisis stems from Northern Africa, particularly Libya, where people are paying to be smuggled into Europe, with promises of a better life. But the trip across the Mediterranean is so dangerous that up to 1,800 people have drowned making that trip so far this year.

Seven hundred of the Myanmar Royingha population were abandoned in the middle of the sea after fleeing in fear of ethnic persecution. Thailand recently cracked down on human trafficking, which is one of the countries the Royingha would try to enter. The smugglers were too afraid of being arrested inThailand so they left the ship in the middle of the water for the people to fend for themselves.

These displaced populations are in desperate situations. They are in serious danger wherever they go and they see very little sympathy from the world in general.

While it is technically no one else’s responsibility to take care of another country’s population, I say it’s important to remember what solidarity means- we’re all global citizens after all.

In terms of an individual’s responsibility, unless you have a private island hidden away somewhere for the millions of displaced to go, there isn’t anything that can be done to solve the problem overnight. There are, however, a number of things that can be done to help.

There are specific organizations like the UNHCR and the International Rescue Committee that deal with displaced persons on the ground. Donations to these agencies can go a long way in providing resources for refugee camps and ultimately saving someone’s life.

There are huge immigrant populations in every country and changing the stigma against them can go a long way in supported the overall agenda for migrants. There are centers for immigration out there that need volunteers to teach immigrants the language of the host country so that they can make a living for themselves.

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Always keep an eye out for situations where immigrants could be exploited. For instance, a huge story just came out about New York City nail salons and how most severely mistreat their immigrant employees.

Support policies that tackle immigration yet put people first. (We don’t want any more people being abandoned at sea.) The DREAM Act in the United States is a great example. It’s a piece of legislation that creates a path to permanent residency for kids who came into the US as children.

All in all, don’t make people feel invisible. Go out of your way to make immigrants feel welcome. Chances are, for most underprivileged migrant and refugee groups, they didn’t want to leave their homes- they had to.

Migrants are looking to survive and end up taking all sorts of abuse along the way because it is easy to take advantage of  a population that is in such a vulnerable state. It’s important to remember at the end of the day to treat everyone with the human dignity they deserve.