The term ‘refugee’ has been used for hundreds, if not thousands, of years to generally mean ‘a person who has sought refuge’. The legal definition, set by the 1951 Refugee Convention, is far less flexible in who it does and does not apply to, and subsequently afford rights to. Article 1 of the Convention defines a refugee as a person residing outside his or her country of nationality, who is unable or unwilling to return because of a ‘well-founded fear of persecution on account of race, religion, nationality, membership in a political social group, or political opinion’.
It is often acknowledged that all humans deserve the same basic rights, as outlined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, but under the Refugee Convention anyone proven to be a ‘refugee’ is afforded separate rights under international law, owing to both their fear of persecution and their movement over an international border. As controversy continues to build around the appropriateness of the Refugee Convention and its 1967 Protocol in the 21st Century, I can’t help but think about the problems we are potentially creating by working to promote one set of standards for persecuted people and another for everyone else.
Why, for instance, is a religiously persecuted woman from Ethiopia who must flee to Kenya to save her life, more deserving of legal rights and protection than a woman who takes the very same path and flees her homeland because her life is threatened by famine? Should these two women be treated differently under the law? Why would a displaced Darfuri be given no international protection or rights while living in Sudan, then declared a genuine ‘refugee’ protected by UNHCR’s mandate once they manage to escape to Chad? These considerations are the reason why many practitioners and academics also use the term forced migrant, rather than refugee – because of the legal meaning attached to the latter term.
In order to better understand how the ‘refugee’ label privileges some over others, we also need to consider Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs). IDPs are legally distinct from refugees, largely because they have not crossed an international border. All other factors may be identical, but it is this border crossing that holds weight in determining if an individual meets the UNHCR mandate and can be offered international support or protection. In 1992, a report of the Secretary-General of the United Nations defined IDPs as ‘persons who have been forced to flee their homes suddenly or unexpectedly in large numbers, as a result of armed conflict, internal strife, systematic violations of human rights or natural or man-made disasters, and who are within the territory of their own country.’
Refugees have a clear legal status, IDPs and other forced migrants do not. This means that, even though international intentions may be benevolent, one set of people – the persecuted and internationally displaced ‘refugees’ – are given a different set of rights to all other groups of people, though their situations may be extremely similar. In my own academic work, I tend to adopt the definition of ‘forced migration’ promoted by the International Association for the Study of Forced Migration (IASFM) where it is described as ‘a general term that refers to the movements of refugees and internally displaced people (those displaced by conflicts) as well as people displaced by natural or environmental disasters, chemical or nuclear disasters, famine, or development projects.’
The Refugee Convention was extremely relevant and significant in a post-WWII context, but today I can’t help but find it dangerous to promote the rights of refugees, but not other forced migrants. There are cases, for instance, of people who have been displaced by conflict or fleeing life-threatening situations being forced to embellish their own stories in order to be recognised as ‘genuine’ refugees and thus be afforded the additional rights only accessible to that group. I believe that we need to invest less time in solely promoting the rights of ‘refugees’ and more time in advocating for the rights of forcibly displaced people in general. What is the true cost of working to protect only ‘refugees’ but not anyone else?
For further reading, Michelle Forster discusses these issues in depth in her wonderful book International Refugee Law and Socio-Economic Rights and also visit Forced Migration Online.