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Making the melting pot
Immigrants welcome, racists not

A refugee is a person who has crossed an international border to escape war, violence, or persecution. Their status is recognised in international law and they are guaranteed certain rights and protections.[1]

The term asylum seeker is also often heard. A refugee is someone who has been recognised as being entitled to international protection; an asylum seeker is someone who has been applied to be recognised as a refugee, but has not yet had their application accepted. In contrast, the term "migrant" has no legal definition but is often taken to refer to anybody who has left their country of origin but often excludes refugees and asylum seekers.[2] "Displaced person" can refer to both refugees and to people who flee conflict withi their own countries ("internally-displaced people"). Refugees have the right to international protect, and asylum seekers have the right to be considered for refugee status.[2]

Refugees suffer many problems both before and after they are granted refugee status and are resettled. They often face dangerous journeys, and women in particular are subject to rape and abuse from human traffickers, criminals, and others.[3] They face numerous healthcare challenges, including mental health issues, badly-treated injuries and chronic conditions, and communicable diseases.[4] They also face racism, abuse, and discrimination.[5] Refugees and asylum seekers have often been the object of vilification in the press and by politicians, often being lumped together with illegal immigrants.[6][7]

Current international law covers many cases of people being forced to leave their homelands, but does not include so-called environmental refugees who have fled to escape global warming or other climate catastrophes.[8]

1951 Refugee Convention[edit]

The 1951 United Nations Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees set out the rights of refugees at an international level. It came into force in 1954, and was slightly modified by 1967 with new regulations that removed geographical and temporal limitations in the initial convention.[9]

According to UNHCR's introductory note, the convention defines a refugee as "someone who is unable or unwilling to return to their country of origin owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion."[1]

The convention and regulations set minimum standards for the treatment of refugees, including protection from arbitrary detention, and they protect refugees who enter a country illegally or on false papers. The rules prohibit the expulsion of refugees, and particularly prohibit refoulement, sending refugees back to the country of origin in which they fear for their safety or lives. This central concept of non-refoulement is now considered a part of customary international law that is binding even on countries which have not signed the Refugee Convention.[10]

However protections are not extended to those suspected of war crimes, crimes against humanity, other serious crimes, or offences contrary to the principles of the UN. Some groups, such as Palestinians expelled from Israeli territory, are handled by other UN agencies and are not classed under the Refugee Convention.[9]

Populist opposition[edit]

Hatred of all kind of immigrants and foreigners is a common tool of populists, particularly right-wingers.

Notable campaigners against refugees:

  • Nigel Farage, who in 2020-2021 devoted a lot of time to ranting about refugees arriving in England by boat.[11]
  • Donald Trump, whose administration tried to make it as hard as possible to claim asylum in the US.[12]


Many ostensibly free and developed countries have sought to bend the rules or otherwise avoid the full extent of their obligations; this includes the USA (especially under Trump) and Australia.[13]

A number of worrying trends can be seen:

  • Detention of asylum seekers: refugees and people seeking refugee status are not criminals, the UN convention makes clear. Nonetheless detaining people in inhuman conditions is common. Australia has detained people applying for refugee status in offshore bases in other countries such as Nauru and Papua New Guinea. This makes it far harder for them to access help and support, including medical services, legal representation, and courts, and puts them at risk of abuse.[14][15]
  • Attempting to "turn back" boats carrying refugees and making it illegal to help them, even if they are in a small, overcrowded, unseaworthy vessel. Australia has used a policy of turning back vessels, and Greece has also been accused of it; this is despite the duty under international law to rescue people from a boat that is in trouble.[16][17] The Italian right-wing leader Matteo Salvini attempted to block boats that had rescued immigrants from docking in Italian ports, despite a legal duty to disembark rescued people as soon as possible.[18] Boris Johnson's government in the UK has also proposed similar measures, although France (through which many refugees travel on their way to the UK) has criticized plans as contrary to maritime law which requires the British to rescue passengers and crew in distress. Since vessels would have to be turned back into French water, plans appear to require French consent.[19]

Limitations of the existing law[edit]

There are problems with the existing law.

It encourages people smuggling,Wikipedia with associated abuses ranging from deaths in transit to people being blackmailed or imprisoned and forced into work. It leads to people taking dangerous voyages to claim refugee status, resulting in many deaths at sea. Some of this is improvable: according to UNICEF, many people undertaking dangerous journeys are travelling to reunite with family already settled in their destination, and better procedures for family reunification could allow them to travel legally. In addition, there needs to be much more international coordination and work to break trafficking networks and prosecute traffickers. And they call for greater protection for victims (rather than prosecuting them for engaging with illegal people smugglers), which would allow the actual smugglers to be prosecuted and prevent the smuggled people from absconding.[20]

There are also concerns that the rules do not consider economic migrants. They have no rights to refugee status, even those whose livelihoods have been destroyed by climate change, natural disaster, or other actions and events. At the same time, migration can deprive the developing world of able and talented people: the European Union and other organisations have called for new pathways for economic migrants, both to allow them to work in the EU where there is a shortage of workers, and to allow them to return home afterwards taking back earnings, knowledge, and experience. These proposals could benefit both the country of origin and destination.[21][22]

Many people on both right and left argue for a greater focus on keeping refugees in their country of origin. Ideally, situations that create refugees, such as war and tyranny, could be reduced or eliminated. Sadly that shows little sign of happening, and politicians who complain about refugees are often the same ones supporting dictatorships and wars.


First country[edit]

It is commonly claimed by anti-refugee people that refugees must claim asylum in the first country they reach, often used to argue that people e.g. from Syria should not claim asylum in the UK. There is an European Union convention, known as Dublin III and first implemented in 2014, which says that an asylum claim should be processed in the first EU country (also including non-EU members of the Schengen area), but this is not part of the UN Convention of Refugees or international law of refugees and was implemented (according to the EU) to simplify administration within the EU.[23][24] A more cynical explanation would be that the EU regulations exist to protect wealthy northern European nations and force poorer southern European nations closer to Africa and the Middle East to bear the costs of handling refugees.

Asylum seekers have many reasons for choosing to apply in a particular country. This includes the presence of family or friends; reasons of language, culture, and religion; and the existence of support groups and existing communities of refugees.


The phrases "illegal immigrants" or "illegal aliens" is commonly used on the right for people entering the country through non-standard channels (e.g. secretly over unguarded borders or via people smuggling). This is a misnomer because the refugee convention clearly states that anyone is allowed to apply for refugee status, and people seeking refugee status are not criminals simply because of how they sought refugee status.[25]

Most boat people aren't real refugees?[edit]

Contrary to claims of anti-immigrant politicians, there is evidence that people entering western nations unofficially, particularly by the most dangerous methods, are likely to be legitimate refugees. Between 1976 and 2015, research showed that 81% of people entering Australia by boat were entitled to refugee status, and in 2015 the UNHCR reported that most people travelling by boat to southern Europe were fleeing war zones, with 50% from Syria alone, and hence likely to be legitimate refugees.[26] Research in 2021 found that 61% of people crossing the English channel to the UK in small boats were likely to be legitimate refugees, contrary to claims by the UK government.[27]

See also[edit]


  1. 1.0 1.1 What is a refugee?, UNHCR, accessed June 21, 2021
  2. 2.0 2.1 Refugees, Asylum-Seekers and Migrants, Amnesty International
  3. Improving responses to violence against refugee and asylum-seeking women, Bristol University
  4. Unique health challenges for refugees and asylum seekers, British Medical Association
  5. Discrimination: a health hazard for people from refugee and asylum-seeking backgrounds resettled in Australia, Anna Ziersch, Clemence Due & Moira Walsh, BMC Public Health volume 20, Article number: 108 (2020)
  6. Asylum seekers continue to be stigmatised by the British press, The Guardian, Oct 31, 2012
  7. ‘The Truth About Fake News’ – the portrayal of refugees and asylum seekers in the media, The Meteor, May 4, 2018
  8. Environmental Refugee, National Geographic
  9. 9.0 9.1 Convention and Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees, UNHCR
  10. The Refugee Convention, Refugee Council of Australia
  11. 'Completely dehumanising': Nigel Farage describes group of children and adults landing in Kent as 'invasion', The Independent, 6 Aug 2020
  12. The Trump Administration’s Final Insult and Injury to Refugees, Human Rights Watch, 11 December 2020
  13. Trump’s Asylum Policies—and the Troops Who Enforce Them—Are Breaking the Law, Foreign Policy, Aug 7, 2019
  14. The torture of Australia’s offshore immigration detention system, Open Democracy, March 16, 2021
  15. As UK considers offshore asylum plan, why Australia's system was a dangerous failure, The Guardian, 22 March 2021
  16. Australia's asylum boat turnbacks are illegal and risk lives, UN told, The Guardian, 30 Oct 2017
  17. Are pushbacks at sea legal?, Info Migrants/Deutsche Welle, July 8, 2020
  18. Who is responsible for helping out migrants at sea?, BBC News, 26 Feb 202
  19. Channel crossings: Migrant boats could be turned back in new UK move, BBC News, 9 September 2021
  20. Exploitation, trafficking and smuggling can be avoided, UNICEF, October 2016
  21. Report: on new avenues for legal labour migration, European Parliament Committee on Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs, 2020
  22. Promoting New Kinds of Legal Labour Migration Pathways Between Europe and Africa, Michael Clemens, Helen Dempster and Kate Gough, Center for Global Development, Oct 24, 2019
  23. What is the Dublin III Regulation? Will it be affected by Brexit?, House of Commons Library, 4 November, 2019
  24. The Dublin Regulation: An Overview, Steve Peers, UK In A Changing Europe
  25. The Biden administration has ended use of the phrase ‘illegal alien’. It’s about time, The Guardian, 22 April 2021
  26. The Distinction Between Asylum Seekers and Economic Migrants: An Analysis of State Practice, Refugee Law Initiative, University of London, May 14, 2020
  27. Most people who risk Channel boat crossings are refugees – report, The Guardian, Nov 17, 2021