Some commonly asked questions regarding refugee protection can be found here. To understand further about the people that UNHCR assists worlwide and the issues related to international refugee protection, visit the UNHCR Global website
Who is a refugee?
International law defines a “refugee” as a person who has fled from and/or cannot return to their country due to a well-founded fear of persecution, including war or civil conflict.
A refugee is a person who “owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality, and is unable to or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country…” Article 1, The 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees.
The most important parts of the refugee definition are: Refugees have to be outside their country of origin; The reason for their flight has to be a fear of persecution; The fear of persecution has to be well-founded i.e. they have to have experienced persecution or be likely to experience it if they return;The persecution has to result from one or more of the 5 grounds listed in the definition; They have to be unwilling or unable to seek the protection of their country.
What are the key legal documents?
The 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees is the key legal document in defining who is a refugee, their rights and the legal obligations of states. The 1967 Protocol removed geographical and temporal restrictions from the Convention.
What is refugee status?
Many States party to the 1951 Convention also have refugee status determination procedures, to determine the person’s status in accordance with the domestic legal system. UNHCR offers advice to governments on refugee status determination as part of its mandate to promote refugee law and Convention. UNHCR advocates that governments adopt a rapid, flexible and liberal process, recognising how difficult it often is to document persecution.
Malaysia is not a signatory to the 1951 UN Refugee Convention.
How is the term ‘refugee’ misused?
The term has slipped into common usage to cover a range of people, including those displaced by natural disaster or environmental change. Refugees are often confused with other migrants.
In international law, the term ‘refugee’ has a specific meaning and is NOT to be confused with:
This term is not correct. The accurate description of people who leave their country or place of residence because they want to seek a better life is ‘economic migrant’.
Migrants make a conscious choice to leave their country of origin and can return there without a problem. If things do not work out as they had hoped or if they get homesick, it is safe for them to return home.
Under Article 14 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, everyone has the right to seek and enjoy asylum. In addition, Article 13 of the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees states that countries should not impose penalties on individuals coming directly from a territory where their life or freedom is threatened on account of their illegal entry. Often governments refuse to issue passports to known political dissidents or imprison them if they apply. Refugees may not be able to obtain the necessary documents when trying to escape and may have no choice but to resort to illegal means of escape. Therefore although the only means of escape for some may be illegal entry and/or the use of false documentation, if the person has a well-founded fear of persecution they should be viewed as a refugee and not labelled an ‘illegal immigrant’.
Governments are imposing stronger measures such as visa restrictions and fines on transport companies with whom asylum applicants arrive, to stop people travelling to their territory. The more obstacles placed on entry, the more likely a refugee will have to resort to using false documents or enlisting the help of human smugglers.
There are currently 12 million refugees around the world. There are approximately double that number of people who have fled because of floods, famine and other environmental disasters. Although there are similarities between the two groups, the most obvious being the forced nature of their flight and then their need for material assistance and permission to live elsewhere, there are also important differences too.
Refugees can not turn to their own governments for protection because states are often the source of persecution and they therefore need international assistance, whereas those fleeing natural disasters continue to enjoy national protection whatever the state of the landscape. Therefore, in order not to cloud the distinction between the two groups, those fleeing for environmental reasons should be considered ‘environmental migrants’.
For further information on environmental migrants as well as the relationship between refugees and the environment, please see Volume 2, No. 127 (2002) of UNHCR’s quarterly Refugees magazine - The Environment, A Critical Time and UNHCR International - Working for People and the Environment.
And asylum seekers?
Refugees should also not be confused with asylum seekers - the two terms have different legal definitions. For the difference between refugees and asylum seekers, as well as the definition of other people in need of different forms of international protection, please see the following section on what other people are of concern to the UNHCR.
For further information on the confusion over refugees, asylum seekers and other forms of migrants, as well as the facts behind the oft touted media myths about refugees and asylum seekers, please click here.
What makes a refugee different?
Refugees are forced to leave their countries because they have been persecuted or have a well-founded fear of persecution. Refugees run away. They often do not know where they will end up. Refugees rarely have the chance to make plans for their departure such as packing their personal belongings or saying farewell to loved ones. Many refugees have experienced severe trauma or have been tortured.
What other people are of concern to the UNHCR?
The term refugee is a very specific definition covering only people who have fled their homeland and sought sanctuary in a second country. However, there are millions of people in similar desperate circumstances but who do not legally qualify as refugees and are therefore not eligible for normal relief or protection. Increasingly, UNHCR has provided assistance to some of these groups, including asylum seekers, internally displaced persons (IDPs), returnees and those in need of temporary or humanitarian protection.
An asylum seeker is a person who has left their country of origin, has applied for recognition as a refugee in another country, and is awaiting a decision on their application.
Internally Displaced Persons
An Internally Displaced Person (IDP) may have been forced to flee their home for the same reasons as a refugee, but has not crossed an internationally recognised border. Many IDPs are in refugee-like situations and face the same problems as refugees. There are more IDPs in the world than refugees. Globally, there are an estimated 20-25 million so-called internally displaced persons (IDPs) and UNHCR helps 6.3 million of these.
UNHCR assists and monitors the reintegration of refugees who have returned to their own countries.
Other forms of protection
UNHCR also assists people who have been granted protection on a group basis or on purely humanitarian grounds, but who have not been formally recognised as refugees.
Exceptional Leave to Remain (ELR)
People uprooted by civil war fall outside the UN definition of a refugee because they have not been individually targeted for persecution. In the UK asylum seekers who do not meet the criteria of the 1951 Convention but nevertheless need protection may be granted Exceptional Leave to Remain (ELR). It may also be granted on human rights grounds, for example, if a person is likely to be ‘subjected to inhuman or degrading treatment’, or would not receive a fair trial if they returned home. ELR is normally, but not always, granted for a period of four years (one year initially, then a three year extension). After four years with ELR, a person can apply for Indefinite Leave to Remain (ILR).
From 1st April 2003, in the UK ELR was replaced by ‘Humanitarian Protection’ for new asylum applicants who do not meet the criteria of the 1951 Convention yet still require protection on human rights grounds. ‘Humanitarian Protection’ will be granted for three years, after which it will be reviewed and, if continued protection is required, Indefinite Leave to Remain will be granted. There is also be a new category of ‘Discretionary Protection’, used in cases where it would be inappropriate or unlawful to return someone to their country of origin.
In the event of arrival of a large group of people from a particular country seeking asylum because of persecution or upheaval, determination of refugee status may be temporarily suspended and ‘temporary protection’ granted. Individual Kosovo Albanians were granted temporary protection in 1999 as were Bosnian Muslims during the Bosnian conflict from 1992 to 1995.
What is UNHCR?
The UN refugee agency is formally known as the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). Established in 1951, we are responsible for helping refugees in more than 100 countries. UNHCR has a specific mandate to protect and assist refugees worldwide. We also help stateless people and millions of people displaced within their countries.
When people are forced to flee their homes because of war or persecution, they turn to UNHCR for assistance. We offer them food, shelter, water, medical attention, sanitation and security, while working to find lasting solutions to their plight. When possible, we help refugees and other displaced people return home voluntarily and safely. If necessary, we help them settle in another country where they can start a new life.
UNHCR is non-political and we help all refugees, regardless of race, religion, political opinion or gender. We focus on their humanitarian needs and rights, especially those of women and children.
How many people does UNHCR care for?
At the end of 2008, the number of people of concern to UNHCR stood at 34.4 million. These included 10.5 million refugees, 2 million returnees to their homes, 838,000 asylum seekers, 14.4 million internally displaced people and 6.6 million stateless people. Over half of these are women and children.
UNHCR operates in more than 110 countries. We are active in nearly all refugee situations and crises worldwide. From Colombia to Kenya and from Iraq to Afghanistan, UNHCR is there to help uprooted people. We provide basic services, offer legal protection, and work to develop lasting solutions for refugees and other displaced people.
What is the breakdown of UNHCR's budget?
UNHCR's annual budget is revised every year. Voluntary contributions from governments, foundations, corporations and generous people like you accounted for about 97 percent of our total budget. Some 2-3 percent comes from the UN regular budget. As needs continue to grow, UNHCR is seeking greater support from individual donors, corporations and foundations. For more information please download our Annual Report for private donors.
How much is spent on refugee programmes versus overhead?
UNHCR's administrative costs account for approximately 10 percent of the total budget. Nearly 90 percent of all funds are spent on services directly helping refugees. More than 80 percent of our staff work in the field. Fund-raising, public awareness and advocacy costs represent only 1 percent of UNHCR's total budget. For the budget breakdown in any given year please download our Annual Report for private donors.
How is this money used to help refugees?
All of our programmes are designed to help find lasting solutions to refugees' problems, whether it's helping them return home or settle in other countries. The agency's work around the world falls under these main sectors: shelter, health care and nutrition, income generation, water and sanitation, education, legal assistance and protection.
All programmes and sectoral projects are intended to mitigate the harsh circumstances in which refugees find themselves and to create opportunities to re-establish their lives. Special focus is given to the most vulnerable, especially women, children, older people and those living with disabilities.
For detailed country-by-country information on global programmes, see the UNHCR Global Appeal.
Does UNHCR work with partners?
The work we do would be impossible without extensive cooperation with our partners in the field. UNHCR works with more than 600 non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and with many other intergovernmental and UN agencies to deliver services directly to refugees. We also work closely with governments to support safe and respectful asylum policies, to negotiate refugee camp locations and security, and to guarantee safety for refugees upon their return home. For more information please visit our Partners pages.
How can I learn more?
We would be pleased to provide you with additional information or answer any questions you may have. You can also register to receive UNHCR's regular electronic e-newsletters and alerts.