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Learn about Refugees

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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. People do not become refugees because of situations of natural disasters such as earthquakes, tsunamis or famine, nor for economic reasons, although refugees may have experienced these types of traumatic events as well.

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 25.4 million refugees in the world in 2017.

Syria was the leading country of origin, generating 6.3 million refugees, followed by Afghanistan with 2.6 million refugees. South Sudan was the third largest country of origin of refugees at 1.2 million, followed by Myanmar at 1.2 million. Most refugees were located in neighbouring countries, such as: Turkey, Pakistan, Lebanon, Iran, Uganda, Ethiopia and Bangladesh (UNHCR Global Trends: Forced Displacement in 2017, June 2018).

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 2017 there were 68.5 million forcibly displaced people
(UNHCR Global Trends: Forced Displacement in 2017, June 2018)