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What Does “Refugee” Mean?

What Does “Refugee” Mean?

Do you know what makes someone a refugee instead of a migrant or an internally displaced person? The United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) defines a refugee as someone who is forced to cross international boundaries because of war, violence, persecution, or conflict.

Numbers and definitions

The UN’s 1951 Refugee Convention (Geneva Convention) defines a refugee as “someone who is unable or unwilling to return to their country of origin owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion.” There are 70 million forcibly displaced people in the world, including at least 25 million registered refugees. Sixty-seven percent of refugees come from only five countries: Syria, Afghanistan, South Sudan, Myanmar and Somalia. More than half of all refugees are children.

Where do refugees live?

Refugees are not “overrunning” the United States, contrary to popular media narratives. The U.S., along with most other Global North countries, doesn’t even make the list of the world’s top refugee-hosting nations. Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon, Pakistan, and Uganda host over 10 million refugees, total. Germany hosts 1.1 million refugees, but Eighty percent of all refugees are hosted by a country neighboring their place of origin.

Not all refugees live in camps. In fact, sixty percent of refugees live in urban settings and Turkey hosts the largest urban refugee population in the world. The UNHCR plays a vital role in constructing refugee camps and providing an emergency response to refugee crises, but camps are meant to be temporary. Unfortunately, protracted displacement is common and many children grow up in refugee camps.

What happens to refugees after they leave their country of origin?

The UNHCR identifies three durable solutions to refugee status. The first is voluntary repatriation, meaning a refugee volunteers to return to their country of origin. This might be impossible due to cycles of conflict, or because the country of origin cannot or will not guarantee the safety of returning refugees.

Refugees may be integrated or assimilated into their host country, but the vast majority of refugees are hosted by a small handful of countries. This can put a disproportionate strain on host countries, most of which are geographically adjacent to conflict zones.

Refugee resettlement is the third durable solution. This means a refugee is permanently resettled in a third-party country rather than their host country. The refugee will never be forcibly returned to their country of origin, they will be afforded rights and liberties to integrate into their host society, and they have the opportunity to eventually become a naturalized citizen of the new host country. Refugee resettlement allows countries to act in global solidarity with areas disproportionately affected by refugee crises.

Unfortunately, the need for resettlement far outstrips the global community’s willingness to resettle people. In 2017, for every 21 refugees in need of resettlement, only one person departed to a third-party country. Global resettlement needs jumped from 690,000 people in 2014 to 1.4 million people in 2019. As a result, many refugees live in limbo, without naturalized citizenship and the social integration (access to jobs and education, a sense of acceptance and belonging) that comes from a secure legal status. For example, an estimated 93% of Syrian refugees in Jordan live below the poverty line.

Does CWB serve refugees?

Yes! In the last few years alone, CWB – USA has been honored to perform for refugees in LebanonKakuma Camp in Kenyathroughout Turkey, and in partnership with Refugee Services of Texas. CWB’s code of ethics states that our tours aim to better the situation of children experiencing crisis, no matter where they are or what type of crisis. During CWB’s 2017 tour to Turkey, the performances created an opportunity for Turkish children and Syrian refugee children to share social interactions through play and joy.


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