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What is a Refugee?


According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (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.” [1]

By definition, refugees are people who have fled their home country. Similarly, those who have been forced to flee their home but not their home country are referred to as Internally Displaced Persons. [2] In terms of legal status, there is also a distinction to be made between refugees and migrants. Migrants are, generally, people who have willingly chosen to resettle in a new country and who could, for example, freely return to their home country without fear. [3]

Refugee policy varies by nation, however, there are specific protections established by international treaties such as the 1951 Refugee Convention, which is now considered a rule of customary international law. The core principle of the 1951 Convention is a legal term called non-refoulement, which asserts that a refugee should not be returned to a country where they face serious threats to their life or freedom (they’ve already been “fouled” once in having to leave their home and shouldn’t be “re-fouled” again by being sent back into danger). In a 2016 statement regarding the distinction between migrants and refugees the UNHCR reiterated the importance of that point: "One of the most fundamental principles laid down in international law is that refugees should not be expelled or returned to situations where their life and freedom would be under threat."


Today, refugees seek safe haven around the world, with most eventually settling in Europe, the US and other western nations. In previous years, the United States has admitted around 70,000 refugees [4], annually, after being vetted by the State Department prior to arrival. There are many misconceptions about the vetting process but it is an extremely rigorous exercise that can take up to two years to complete. [5]

Others who arrive in the US without the appropriate legal documents can make an application for political asylum which will then be decided by a judge, based on the merits of the asylum seeker’s claim. [6]

In the United States, refugees are required to apply for lawful permanent resident status (also known as getting a green card) after one year of residence. As lawful permanent residents, refugees and asylees have the right to own property, attend public schools, join certain branches of the U.S. armed forces, and travel internationally without an entry visa. They’re also entitled to a social security card and employment authorization and, if they desire, may apply for full U.S. citizenship five years after being admitted as a refugee. [7]

Visit our Get Educated page for more statistics and information about displaced people around the world.