What is a refugee? The definition of ‘refugee’ explained

What is the definition of a “refugee”?

A refugee is someone who, due to a well-founded fear of persecution, war or violence, has been forced to flee their home country.

The legal definition of the term refugee was set out in the 1951 UN Convention on the Status of Refugees.

It was a few years after the Second World War. Nazi Germany had killed nine million people in the Holocaust, including six million Jews, and displaced millions more.

The world’s leaders wanted to ensure that protection for those displaced by war and persecution in internation law.

The convention set out the definition of the term ‘refugee’ as follows:

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; or who, not having a nationality and being outside the country of his former habitual residence is unable or, owing to such fear, unwilling to return to it.
– The 1951 UN Convention on the Status of Refugees

There are a few ideas going on here, so let’s break it down, bit by bit.

  1. “…well-founded fear”:
    This means that a refugee has solid grounds to their fear. They are facing real danger.
  2. “…of being persecuted…”:
    A refugee fears being oppression, hostility and violence so bad that it forces them to leave their country.
  3. “…reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion…”
    These are known as the ‘Convention reasons’. They break down the reasons why – under the Refugee Convention – a refugee is forced to flee.They were, of course, written in 1951, and today these reasons may seem too stringent. There is no mention of people who are forced to flee a country based on their sexuality. But times are changing – albeit slowly. The UK, for example, finally accepted that sexuality may be a reason to grant asylum in 2010.
  4. “…is outside the country of his nationality…”:
    Technically, someone who fits every stipulation but is still in their home country is called an ‘internally displaced person’, rather than a refugee.
  5. “…is unable or, owing to such fear, unwilling to return to [their country].”
    As a result of all of the above, this person is unable or unwilling to return home.

To be recognised as a refugee under the Refugee Convention, an asylum seeker would have to show that the above conditions apply to them.

1951 UN Refugee Convention signing

World leaders sign the 1951 UN Refugee Convention. Picture: UNHCR

Today, we often see people ask why refugees don’t settle in the first safe country they reach (N.B. most of them do). However, the Refugee Convention does not stipulate that refugees have to do this. Refugees are well within their rights to pass through safe countries before applying for asylum.

You can read about the history of the Refugee Convention and its full text on the UNHCR website.

What about ‘refugee status’?

Refugee status is a form of protection granted to those who successfully pass through Refugee Status Determination (RSD). RSD is the legal process by which governments ascertain whether an asylum seeker can be considered a refugee.

Refugee Status Determination, or RSD, is the legal or administrative process by which governments or UNHCR determine whether a person seeking international protection is considered a refugee under international, regional or national law. RSD is often a vital process in helping refugees realize their rights under international law.

It’s worth considering the difference between someone who is a de facto refugee, in that they’ve been forced to flee their home country for fear of persecution or violence, and someone who has refugee status, which is a legal status endowed upon them by a government.


Help Refugees supports refugees, asylum seekers and migrants across their whole journey. We’ve supported almost 1 million people in four years, thanks to the incredible hard work of 30,000 volunteers and wonderfully generous donors. Please consider setting up a small monthly donation of £3 to help us continue supporting displaced people across the globe.