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Refugees and Asylum Seekers

The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) monitors the condition of people it identifies as members of “populations of concern.” In addition to refugees, this definition includes asylum seekers, stateless persons, and returned refugees as well as internally displaced persons (IDPs) and people fleeing a broad threat such as war or a natural disaster. A refugee is legally defined as a person who has fled his or her country because of a well-founded fear of persecution based on race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or membership in a particular social group (UNHCR, 2004). US law also specifically states that a person fleeing, or who has suffered, a forced abortion may be considered a refugee. The condition of being a refugee is determined by the UNHCR. An asylum seeker is a person who states he or she is a refugee but whose claim has not yet been established (UNHCR, n.d.). Those who flee their home, but remain within the borders of their nation, are known as IDPs. Chapter 2 discussed how the Universal Declaration of Human Rights focuses on the rights of the individual rather than on community-level rights. The same is true of the definition of refugee: It focuses on the persecution of the individual and neglects community-wide persecution.

In 2012, the size of the “population of concern” to the UNHCR was 42.5 million, of whom 25.9 million were under UNHCR protection (UNHCR, 2012). Children are estimated to make up almost half of this population. Representing the change in current warfare, the proportion of refugees within that population has been decreasing over the past decade, while the number of IDPs has been increasing. Those from the Occupied Palestinian Territories are the largest actual population of concern (4.8 million), but they are not served by the UNHCR, but another agency. Countries in the Global South by far host the greatest number of refugees—four-fifths of the total. The top five countries hosting populations of concern to the UNHCR are (in order) Colombia, Sudan, Pakistan, Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Iraq (UNHCR, 2012).

The countries with the largest populations of IDPs (in order) are Colombia, Sudan, and Democratic Republic of the Congo (UNHCR, 2012). While many people are not aware of the situation in Colombia, the violence that has been occurring for decades has resulted in it being the country with the highest number of displaced people (3.9 million), the vast majority of whom are IDPs, a situation addressed in this chapter’s Culture Box. Afghanistan is the source country for the second largest number of “populations of concern” to the UNHCR, with 2.7 million affected people; these people are spread throughout 79 countries, but 95% are in Pakistan and Iran. Pakistan hosts the greatest number of these refugees, followed by Iran and then Syria (UNHCR, 2012).

As noted, the status of being an asylum seeker is different from that of being a refugee, although the same criteria of the five areas of persecution are applied. A person who has a fear of persecution in his or her home country may apply to another country for asylum in that nation. According to the 1951 Refugee Convention, the principle of nonrefoulement forbids any nation from returning a person to a country where he or she would face persecution because of any of the five areas of persecution. However, this persecution must be proved in court, and the evidence required for asylum is much greater than that of refugee status and therefore has a much higher rate of denial. For example, those seeking asylum due to gender-based persecution claims have traditionally had great difficulty in proving their case in many Global North countries, where it can be difficult to prove that the discriminatory treatment of women in such areas as domestic violence and female genital cutting can rise to the level to be considered persecution (Human Rights Watch, 2004). Those who face persecution due to being a member of a sexual minority have also faced high hurdles for being granted refuge or asylum (“The plight,” 2013). Due to the skepticism with which most refugees and asylum seekers are viewed, their treatment in host countries has often been questionable in terms of violations of human rights. A “culture of disbelief” tends to exist, and in some countries, such as South Africa, asylum officers fail to apply applicable law or seek to be bribed for a favorable recommendation (“Culture of disbelief,” 2013; “South Africa’s flawed,” 2013). There is a need to identify asylum seekers and provide them with the services to which they are entitled, while differentiating them from economic migrants as well as those who would pose a security threat to the nation. This balance is very difficult, as will be illustrated in the following section. This text will examine conditions in three Global North countries (Australia, Israel, and the United States) and two Global South countries (Thailand and Pakistan).

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