What is a refugee? Refugees, Asylum seekers and IDPs

Refugees are entitled to international protection, because their country of origin is unable to guarantee their basic rights and/or physical security. This means that other countries are required to provide them with protection, to ensure that refugees can live in safety and realise their human rights. This protection includes respect for the principle of non-refoulement, which means that refugees cannot be sent back to a country where they are at risk of violence or persecution.

From the 1951 Refugee Convention to the present Global Compact on Refugees,  responsibility-sharing is at the theoretical heart of the international response to displacement – yet almost 9/10 refugees are hosted by developing countries. Furthermore, funding shortfalls have repeatedly compromised the ability of states and international agencies to support refugees. At the end of January 2018, for example, only 3% of the requested funds for South Sudan had been received.

In 2017, there were almost 22.5 million refugees globally – over half of whom are under the age of 18.

What is an internally displaced person?

People who are forced to flee their homes, but who do not cross an international border, are known as Internally Displaced People (IDPs). There are 40.3 million IDPs around the world; some of the largest IDP populations are in Syria, Colombia and Iraq.

Unlike refugees, IDPs are not entitled to international protection – because they are legally considered to be receiving the protection of their own government. As a result, they are not eligible for many types of aid.

What is an asylum seeker?

An asylum seeker is someone who is claiming for refugee status, but whose claim hasn’t yet been decided. This person will have applied for asylum on the grounds that returning to his or her country would lead to persecution on account of race, religion, nationality or political beliefs. As long as their application for refugee status, this person will be an asylum seeker.

Someone is an asylum seeker for so long as their application is pending. So not every asylum seeker will be recognised as a refugee, but every refugee is initially an asylum seeker.


Help Refugees supports refugees and displaced people across Europe and the Middle East, and funds grassroots assistance for IDPs in hard-to-reach areas in Syria and Iraq. To support our work, please donate here.

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