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Learn about Refugees

People become refugees in situations of organised violence and/ or war. These are situations of human conflict where significant avoidable pain and suffering are inflicted against fellow humans. It comprises any violent action which is unacceptable by general human standards and is a violation of human rights.

Refugees are not generated in situations of natural disasters such as earthquakes, tsunamis or famine, nor for economic reasons.

Who are refugees?

A refugee, defined by the United Nations Convention relating to the Status of Refugees 1951 and the Protocol relating to the Status of Refugees 1968, is any person who has a well-founded fear of being persecuted because of their:

  • Race
  • Religion
  • Nationality
  • Membership of a particular social group
  • Political opinion

The person must be outside their country of nationality or the country they normally live in.

The person must be unable or unwilling to return because of the fear of persecution.
The UNHCR estimates that there were 15.2 million refugees in the world in 2011.
Afghanistan was the leading country of origin, generating 2.66 million refugees, followed by Iraq with 1.43 million refugees. Somalis were the third largest group at 1.08 million, followed by Sudan at 500,000. Of these less than 1% were resettled in a third country.

Source: UNHCR 2011 Global Trends report

Women and children make up 80% of the world’s refugees and displaced persons.

Limitations of the refugee definition

The definition of the refugee is limited. People fleeing from the following events would not normally be considered refugees but could be considered to come from refugee-like backgrounds and may have been through multiple traumatic experiences:

  • General civil unrest
  • The effect of war where they are not targeted in the conflict
  • People displaced within their own country by conflict. These people are referred to as “Internally Displaced Persons” or “IDPs”


In 2011 there were 42.5 million forcibly displaced people
Source: UNHCR Global Trends 2011 Report

A Migrant differs from a refugee in that he/she chooses to leave their country.