Who Is a Refugee?


Even though refugees have been a major subject in the news for the last several years, there are still a lot of misconceptions and misunderstandings about who refugees are. In this post I want to address the answer to the question: who is a refugee? I will also clarify some other terms that are sometimes used to refer to refugees.

Who Is a Refugee?

Dictionaries commonly define a refugee as:

A person who has been forced to leave their country in order to escape war, persecution, or natural disaster.

The United Nations, at the 1951 Refugee Convention, legally defined a refugee as someone who

owing to a 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 to, or owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country.

This means that in order to qualify as a refugee, someone must be geographically outside of their country and unable or unwilling to return to their home because their life, freedoms, or other human rights are being threatened.

Refugees are a subset of immigrants, but while all refugees are immigrants, not all immigrants are refugees. Some individuals willingly choose to leave their country of origin to seek better economic or social opportunities for themselves and their families. These kinds of immigrants would not qualify as refugees.

Other Terms for Refugees

There are many different terms used to talk about refugees. The differences between some of those terms can be very confusing, so I’ve defined each of them here.

Forced Migrant

This is the broadest term that is sometimes used and can refer to anyone who has been forced to flee his or her home because of factors outside of his or her control. Those factors might include persecution, war, or natural disasters. The term forced migrant refers both to those who have left their home village or city, but are still residing within the borders of their country (Internally Displaced Persons), and to those who have crossed the border into another country (refugees).

Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs)

An internally displaced person is someone who has been forced to leave their home for the same reasons as a refugee, but they have not crossed any national borders into another country. Rather, they remain within their own country but have been forced to move to another city or geographic location within the country.


An asylum-seeker is someone who claims to be a refugee, but whose claim has not yet been validated. Usually they have entered a certain country as a visitor and then filed paperwork with the government of that country in order to be legally recognized as a refugee.

Lawful Permanent Resident (LPR)

In the United States a lawful permanent resident is a non-citizen who has been granted authorization to live and work in the country permanently. Internationally recognized refugees who have been resettled in the U.S., or an asylum-seeker whose claims to being a refugee have been validated can legally reside in the country under the government’s protection, but they are not yet considered lawful permanent residents. One year after being resettled or granted asylum, an individual may apply to become a lawful permanent resident. After 5 years as a legal resident, these individuals may also choose to become U.S. citizens.

I hope that this brief explanation of who a refugee is and the other terms used to refer to refugees is helpful for some of you as you seek to correct misunderstandings and misconceptions about them. Over the next few months I may write posts offering brief explanations about refugee resettlement, and other topics foundational to understanding who refugees are and how they arrive in our country.