The Rights of Refugees | Facing History & Ourselves

The Rights of Refugees

Sasha Chanoff, Co-Founder and Executive Director of RefugePoint, explains the definition of the term “refugee” and illustrates how the international community has sought to address refugee issues since the end of World War II.
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At a Glance

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English — US


  • History
  • Global Migration & Immigration
  • Human & Civil Rights

The Rights of Refugees

So a refugee is someone who's fled his or her country because of persecution and war and has a well-founded fear of persecution in terms of returning. They can't return because their life would be at risk. A migrant often is somebody who for economic reasons is moving from one country to another to find opportunity. They are dramatically different. A refugee and a migrant are not the same at all.

After World War II, we said never again. There was a moral force behind those words that found its expression in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948. That declaration essentially articulated the basic freedoms that people must have-- the right to life, the right to liberty, the right to security, and other rights as well.

Article 14 of that Declaration articulated the right to asylum for people who are fleeing their homes because of persecution. That Article 14 was the basis for the 1951 UN Refugee Convention. That Convention essentially laid out the rights of people forced from their homes and how countries that were receiving them should respond and support them.

Those rights in the UN Refugee Convention essentially highlight that refugees who are fleeing to a different country should have freedom to work, freedom to move, freedom to access education, and basic other freedoms that would allow them to live their lives normally, just like you and me. So that was the basis of the legal regime that came up in response to the Holocaust and the tragedies of World War II and the massive displacement of World War II.

After 1951, we saw that there was ongoing war. There were more refugees. There was an ongoing need to address their plight, to understand their circumstances and to address those. That's why the 1967 Protocol came into being. The 1967 Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees essentially expanded the definition of refugees.

The 1951 UN Refugee Convention was time-limited and geographic-specific. It related to people who were refugees before 1951 in Europe. The 1967 Protocol expanded that definition geographically so it related to all people around the world, and it expanded that definition temporally in terms of not relating to people before 1951, but at any point.

The Rights of Refugees

Facing History & Ourselves

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Facing History & Ourselves, “The Rights of Refugees,” video, last updated September 20, 2016.

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