1. Who are refugees under international law?
The 1951 Geneva Convention on refugees and its 1967 Protocol, being the only international legal norms applying specifically to refugees at the global level, define a refugee as a person who “owing to well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country.”
However, critics of the Convention and its Protocol claim that the definition of refugees was actually intended to exclude internally displaced persons, economic migrants, victims of natural disasters, and persons fleeing violent conflict but not subject to discrimination amounting to persecution.
A core principle in these two legal norms is “non-refoulement”, which forbids a country receiving asylum seekers from returning them to a country in which they would be in likely danger of persecution. It is a principle of customary international law, it also applies to states that are not signatories to the Convention and Protocol.
2. What is the situation of refugees and asylum seekers worldwide?
Due to regional wars, civil strife, poverty, and natural disasters, the number of refugees worldwide has grown dramatically in recent years to a total of 22.5 million people according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).
Their political status in transit countries has been made precarious by flexible interpretations of the Convention and its Protocol, which allows for signed countries not to grant refugee status, only requiring them to allow protection claimants to seek asylum.
Their economic welfare is also generally uncertain, as most signatory countries allow only bona fide refugees to work if they can find employers while providing only self-employment or the barest of welfare support for asylum seekers.