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What is a refugee?

Refugees are people who are outside their home country and have a well-founded fear of returning home. They flee armed conflict, generalized violence, or persecution based on race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or membership of a particular social group.

What is the difference between a refugee and a migrant?

A refugee is forced out of their home country against their will and seeks protection abroad, whereas, a migrant chooses to leave their country, often to improve their livelihood or for other personal reasons, such as joining family members. The distinction determines their legal rights. Like everyone, refugees also care about their economic situation, but this does not mean their claim for protection based on a well-founded fear of returning home is invalid.

Who decides whether someone is a refugee?

Officials in the receiving country, in some cases the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), carefully consider someone’s refugee claim and decide whether to recognize them as refugee.

What is the difference between a refugee, an asylum seeker, and an internally displaced person?

In general, refugees, asylum seekers, and internally displaced persons (IDPs) are all forcibly displaced for the same reasons: armed conflict, generalized violence, or persecution. The difference between them is that an IDP seeks safety elsewhere in their home country—this includes people forced from their homes because of natural or human-made disasters. An asylum seeker has asked for protection in another country and is awaiting a decision on this claim. Refugees seek safety in another country and have a well-founded fear of being persecuted on one of the protected grounds, whether or not they have been recognized yet as such. It is crucial that asylum seekers are protected from forcible return until officials can determine who among them is a refugee.

How many refugees are there globally? 

According to UNHCR, currently close to 60 million people are forcibly displaced globally. Of this number, 20 million have fled their home countries to seek refuge abroad and 40 million are internally displaced within their country of origin.

Which laws protect refugees?

Refugees are protected by several international laws, the main being the 1951 Geneva Convention which was established in the aftermath of the World War II. All countries that have ratified this convention are obliged to protect refugees fleeing persecution. Its 1967 Protocol gave the Convention universal scope beyond European refugees from World War II.

What is the Dublin Regulation?

The Dublin Regulation is a set of rules in the European Union that assigns the responsibility for examining an asylum application to the country in Europe where an asylum seeker entered first. This method is causing pressure on countries on the external frontiers of the European Union. Human Rights Watch has long criticized the “Dublin” system and has advocated for a more equitable distribution of responsibility among EU member states.

Are refugee children protected or treated differently than adults?

Yes, refugee and asylum-seeking children, especially unaccompanied children, are recognized as having particular vulnerabilities. As a rule, children should not be detained and decisions about their asylum claims should include an assessment of what would be in their best interest. Children with refugee parents are normally treated as refugees on the principle of family unity.

What are state obligations for refugees?

All countries, whether or not they have signed the 1951 Geneva Convention, are obliged to respect the customary international law principle of non-refoulement—the obligation of states not to return (refouler) a person to a country where he or she is at risk of being subjected to persecution, torture, or other cruel or inhuman treatment.

Once granted asylum, what happens next for a refugee?

Once refugees are granted asylum, they have the right to live, work, and travel within the host country, although in practice these and other rights are often reduced or violated.

What is refugee resettlement?

Refugee resettlement is a legal pathway that enables countries outside the region of a refugee flow to choose and admit certain refugees from countries where they first arrived. It is a solution that, in practice, has only been available to about 0.5% of the world’s refugees.

Who qualifies for resettlement?

Each country that opts to resettle refugees has the discretion to establish its own criteria for refugee admission, sometimes based on family and other connections to that country. UNHCR generally prioritizes resettlement referrals based on vulnerability criteria, such as women and girls at risk, unaccompanied and separated children, people with disabilities and health needs, survivors of torture, and refugees with protection needs, such as those who might experience discrimination and severe hardship in the country of first asylum or who are at risk of forced return to their home country.

How many refugees have been resettled?

There are close to 20 million refugees worldwide. The needs for resettlement are far in excess of the number of places that are being offered. According to UNHCR, currently only 33 countries worldwide offer resettlement or humanitarian admission and less than 150,000 refugees are resettled every year; the United States, Canada, Australia and Nordic countries resettle the largest number of refugees.

Apart from resettlement, what other measures protect refugees and asylum seekers?

Other legal pathways to help asylum seekers and refugees get to a place of safety are humanitarian visas and family reunification. Another way is to facilitate other types of visas, such as for work, study, or research. In addition, by creating safe and legal channels for people to find safety, we can minimize the risk of harm or death, or the need for them to turn to unscrupulous smugglers. 

Is it legal to deport an asylum seeker?

Countries are obliged to consider all claims that someone might be persecuted or tortured if sent back home or to a different country. As long as the process for assessing an asylum seeker’s claim, including risk of harm if returned, is fair, governments can deport foreigners who do not have a valid reason to stay in their country.  

How are refugees screened for security?

The immigration and security arms of most resettlement countries conduct strict security screenings before admitting refugees. Screening methods vary by country, and usually involve face-to-face interviews and extensive background checks that utilize biodata (name, address, date of birth, place of birth, etc.) and biometrics (iris scans and fingerprints). Health exams, cultural orientation, and other pre-departure steps are normally also part of the resettlement process.

Which countries are affected most by the current migration crisis?

Developing countries host 80% of the world’s refugees. Turkey currently hosts the largest number of refugees, more than 2 million. Pakistan and Iran host about 2.5 million Afghan refugees between them. Lebanon hosts more than a million Syrian refugees, about one in every five people in the country. Jordan hosts almost 600,000. Other top refugee hosting countries are Ethiopia, Kenya, and Uganda. 

How should Europe deal with the thousands of people arriving at its borders daily?

More than a million people arrived via the Mediterranean into Europe last year, most of whom were nationals of countries embroiled in armed conflict, generalized violence, and high levels of human rights abuse. Though the numbers are high, this influx became a crisis due to mismanagement and lack of political will, rather than a lack of capacity. One million asylum seekers represent 0.2 percent of the EU’s overall population, but differences in treatment of asylum seekers in different European countries and the failure to share responsibility equitably means that the influx has had a much greater impact on countries like Greece and Germany than on other EU member states. Considering its wealth and advanced democracies, EU member states are up to the challenge of processing asylum claims fairly, returning those who do not have a right to stay and can be returned safely, and laying the foundations for integrating those who remain. This should involve helping refugees work legally as soon as possible, helping refugee children integrate into schools, and countering manifestations of xenophobia. In the long run, this will benefit host communities and European societies as a whole.

How does Human Rights Watch help?

Human Rights Watch documents the plight of refugees each step of the way. Our researchers are on the ground investigating human rights violations in countries that cause people to become displaced. We document illegal returns and other abuses at treacherous border crossings and advocate in support of the right to seek asylum. We also monitor the protection needs of asylum seekers and refugees in receiving countries, documenting barriers to asylum, flaws in asylum systems, as well as harsh conditions and xenophobia. Our advocates work with the media to push for a more informed and humane debate, and with key policymakers to push our main recommendations.

How can I help?

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