Terminology and Key Issues regarding refugees

The practice of granting asylum to people fleeing persecution in foreign land is one of the earliest hallmarks of civilization, to be found in texts written 3,500 years ago. Over three millennia later, asylum has been recognized as a fundamental human right of people fleeing persecution. Asylum is about protecting the basic human rights of the people who can no longer enjoy the protection of their native state.

However, current global migration patterns are particularly complex, involving not just refugees, but also millions of economic migrants seeking a better way of life – as well as the people smugglers who have built a multi-billion dollar business by preying on the desires and desperation of many of those who believe they can no longer cross borders in any other way.

Refugees and migrants are fundamentally different, and for that reason are treated very differently under modern international law – even if they often travel in the same way

The two main groups of people on the move – refugees and economic migrants – are increasingly being confused, and increasingly being treated in the same way: with mistrust, even hatred and outright rejection. The impressive body of international law designed to protect refugees is under intense pressure. Border controls are constantly being strengthened and made stricter. The aim is to keep out illegal immigrants and improve security – something states have a perfect right to do.

But refugees may be paying the penalty too. And, in their case, the failure to get to a safe country could in some instances lead to torture or even cost them their lives.

That is why the legal distinctions matter.
Most people smugglers do not distinguish between refugees and migrants either – they’ll simply smuggle anyone who can pay. That has been part of the problem in recent years. All smugglers thrive on prohibition, so stronger borders and tightened visa restrictions have helped push more people – both refugees and economic migrants – into the arms of the smugglers.

Thus, given that refugee and immigration issues are highly controversial areas of public policy, media has a crucial role to play in enhancing understanding on refugee and asylum issues. Journalists in using accurate terms with legal definitions help to avoid creating stereotypes and prejudices for on the worlds’ most vulnerable group of people like refugees and asylum seekers among of whom there are women, unaccompanied minors, elderly and disabled people. It is only through the understanding of the causes of forced displacement that empathy towards refugees can be fostered. Without understanding, without empathy there will be no effective protection for refugees.

This article attempts to address some of the most commonly asked questions and issues about refugees:

A. Who is who?
• Who is a refugee?
• Who is an asylum seeker?
• Is there such thing as an “illegal refugee”?
• Is there such thing as an “illegal asylum seeker”?
• Who is a failed asylum seeker?
• What makes a refugee different from economic migrants?
• Who is an illegal migrant?
• What is the status of people fleeing general conflict?

B. Are there other people of concern to the UNHCR?• Internally displaced persons
• Returnees

C. What are the Key legal documents relating to refugees?
• International Law
• EU Acquis

D. Where can I find more information on refugee related issues?

E. Reporting the cause of claiming asylum


A. Who is who?

• Who is a refugee?

A refugee is a person 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 origin, and is unable to or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country…"
Article 1, The 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees (Geneva Convention)

• Who is an asylum seeker?

An asylum seeker is a person who claims to the institution assigned this responsibility by the law (national or international) that has fled persecution in his / her country or place of habitual residence and requested asylum from the authorities of the host country.

• Is there such thing as an “illegal refugee”?

There is NO such thing as ‘illegal refugee’ and when it is used is always incorrect. Once a person is RECOGNIZED as a refugee is granted permission to remain legally in the country of refuge because, as above-explained, owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for one of the five reasons given in the Article 1 of the Geneva Convention, they can not or they are unwilling to avail themselves to the protection of their country of origin or habitual residence.

• Is there such thing as an “illegal asylum seeker”?

There is no such as thing as ‘illegal asylum seeker’. Asylum is a basic human right and everyone has the right to request asylum under International law (see paragraph bellow). The Geneva Convention acknowledges that someone fleeing persecution may enter a country by irregular means in order to save his/ her life.

• Who is a failed asylum seeker?

A failed asylum seeker is the one who has exhausted the legal avenues in the country of refuge and has not been found to meet the criteria in order to be given refugee status. However, s/ he may, in some cases, still be unable to return to his/ her country of origin or habitual residence. This person may be allowed to remain in the territories of the country of refuge for other humanitarian reasons.

• What makes a refugee different from an economic migrant?

Economic migrants usually move to another country to work, their choice to leave their country is conscious, voluntary and they may return home in safety if they want to. However, Refugees are forced to leave their countries; they often do not know in which country they will end up and seek asylum and most importantly they can not return to their homelands out of fear for their life and/ or freedom.

• Who is an illegal migrant?

Illegal migrant is usually called the migrant who has entered a country illegally or irregularly, that is without permission from the competent authorities and has NOT requested asylum. There are also the ‘overstayers’ that is the people who may have entered a country legally but remained in the country after their VISA expired. Refugees and other people in need of international protection often use the same routes as irregular or illegal migrants in order to ask for protection. The Geneva Convention acknowledges that someone fleeing persecution may enter a country by irregular means, and often without any documents in order to seek asylum.

• People fleeing general conflict

UNHCR describes people fleeing generalized armed conflict as ‘refugees’. People fleeing generalized armed conflict should be allowed to remain in other countries for as long as they can not safely return to their home country.

B. What other people are of concern to the UNHCR?

There are millions of people in similar desperate circumstances as refugees but who do not legally qualify as refugees. Increasingly, UNHCR has provided assistance to some of these groups, including internally displaced persons (IDPs) and returnees.

• Internally Displaced Persons
An Internally Displaced Person (IDP) may have been forced to flee their home for the same reasons as a refugee, but has not crossed an internationally recognized border. Many IDPs are in refugee-like situations and face the same problems as refugees. There are more IDPs in the world than refugees. Globally, there are an estimated 20-25 million so-called internally displaced persons (IDPs) and UNHCR helps 6.3 million of these.

• Returnees
UNHCR assists and monitors the reintegration of refugees who have returned to their own countries.

C. Which are the key legal documents related to refugees?

International refugee law is part of the International Human Rights Law and its main concern is to ensure that international protection is granted to refugees. Under International Law everyone has the fundamental human right to request asylum. The 1951 Geneva Convention is the major tool for protecting refugees. The Convention promotes the basic human rights of refugees and that they will not be returned involuntarily to a country where they face persecution (principle of non-refoulement). In the European Union (EU) the right to asylum is guaranteed with due respect for the rules of the Geneva Convention.

D. Where can I find more information on refugee and asylum issues?

UNHCR’s public websites have a wealth of background information available in various languages.
For English you may access: www.unhcr.org and for Greek: www.unhcr.gr

UNHCR in Cyprus can also be contacted at:
Tel. Numbers Office: 22 35 90 57 - 22 35 90 43
Fax Number Office: 22 35 90 37
Office E-mail: cypni@unhcr.org

E. Reporting the cause of claiming asylum

Covering human rights abuses and conflicts that force people to flee their homes is a valuable tool in protecting refugees, raising public awareness, combating xenophobia and improving the quality of the debate around asylum issues.

Asylum seekers and refugees, like the rest of the population, have the right to be heard and many have extraordinary stories to tell about their home countries, their personal experiences and their difficult journey to safety. However, their request for anonymity should be respected (publishing their names and/ or photos may endanger them). Additionally, when reporting on refugees and asylum seekers there is always the risk of reproducing stereotypes that may lead to misperceptions among the public.

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