Social Education Human Rights Series

The Rights of Refugees

Jennifer Truran Rothwell

The modern consciousness of the plight of the refugee emerged out of the darkness of World War II, from the genocide of six million people and the mass displacement of at least 20 million others in Europe alone. This consciousness was reflected in the Allied efforts to bring refugees home and to ward off starvation, epidemic, and further disorder in postwar Europe. It was also reflected in the adoption of general principles on the rights and status of refugees by the newly-formed United Nations.

Article 14 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the UN General Assembly in 1948, states that ìeveryone has the right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution.î This principle was reinforced by the 1951 UN Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, and by the creation of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in the same year.

The 1951 Convention defines a refugee as 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 his nationality and is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country.

A refugee is a person who leaves home and country because one or more of that individualís human rights have been threatened or violated. Such a person is considered deserving of asylum, meaning a protected status equal to that of other legal immigrants in the country of acceptance. It is the role of the UNHCR to ensure this protection.

The Identity of the Refugee

The phenomenon of the refugee seeking asylum is very old. The word ìrefugeeî itself derives from the name given to French Protestants (Huguenots) who fled their country when the Edict of Nantes was revoked in 1685.1 The idea of the refugee as possessing a distinct identity began to emerge in the early 19th century. One index to this change is the definition given ìrefugeesî in the third edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica (1796). Noting that the term originally applied only to French Protestants, it broadened the definition to include ìall such as leave their country in times of distress, and hence, since the revolt of the British colonies in America, we have frequently heard of American refugees.î2

Political ìexilesî were commonóeven ìromanticîófigures in western European capitals during the 19th century. But attitudes toward refugees grew more complicated as the tides of nationalism and political radicalism grew stronger late in the century. Wars of national ìunificationî often had the effect of dividing people on the basis of their ethnic identity, turning those who were formerly tolerated or even accepted into ìothers.î The assassination of Tsar Alexander II in 1881 increased fears of political radicalism, while the pogroms that followed had the perverse effect of identifying violence with the very people chosen to be scapegoats: Russiaís Jews. It was in this era of large-scale immigration that nations began to institute passports, although this trend did not gain full force until after World War I.

World War I and the ìNansen Passportî

World War I produced refugees on a scale hitherto unknown in Europe. The effects of total warócombined with revolution in Russia, the break-up of the Hapsburg and Ottoman empires, and the acceptance of ìself-determinationî as an organizing principle for nationsócaused a vast reshuffling of peoples in Eastern Europe and the Near East especially. A way out of chaos was sought through official resettlements (for example, the negotiated ìtradeî of ethnic populations between Greece and Turkey) as well as private relief efforts (such as aid to the embattled Armenian minority in eastern Turkey).

The new League of Nations acknowledged the refugee problems stemming from the war by creating a High Commissioner for Refugees to deal with them. But the League was unwilling to arbitrate disputes among its members, and its abstract commitment to helping refugees was backed up with minimal fundingóleaving most relief efforts to private organizations such as the International Red Cross. 3

The first High Commissioner for Refugees was Fridtjof Nansen, the famed Arctic explorer who served as Norwayís ìobserverî at the Paris Peace Conference. In 1920, Nansen effected the rescue of nearly half a million prisoners of war still being held in Russia. He then turned his efforts against the killing Russian famine of 1921, working through the Leagueís Refugee Organization and with private relief agencies to prevent starvation, especially in the Ukraine.4

But the High Commissionerís greatest long-term benefit to refugees was his invention of the ìNansen passportî to provide legal status to Russians who had fled the Bolshevik Revolution, the ensuing civil war, or famineóoften without benefit of documents to prove their identity. Lack of such identity papers could prevent refugees from obtaining work in another country. (This was the era of ìWhiteî Russian countesses taking in sewing and ex-tzarist officers driving taxis in Paris and Constantinopleóalthough it was central and eastern European nations that absorbed most of the 1 to 2 million Russian refugees.) By 1928, fifty nations had agreed at least in principle to honor the Nansen passport.5

The League of Nations offered only a limited response to the refugee problems generated by fascist regimes in interwar Europe. Among European nations, France proved most welcoming to these refugees, a reflection of both its tradition of providing sanctuary to political exiles and its terrible loss of young men in World War I: 1.5 million soldiers, or two out of every ten young men, with many more disabled.6 Between 1937 and 1939, France offered a permanent home to 140,000 refugees from among the 540,000 Spanish republicans and their families who poured across the border after their defeat in the Spanish Civil War.7

The United States accepted the largest number of refugees during the interwar years. But in the mood of xenophobia that followed World War I, it had created a racist quota system that gave marked preference to immigrants from northern and western Europe. Moreover, from 1929 on, it began to review visa applications in terms of whether an immigrant was ìlikely to become a public chargeî (the so-called LPC clause).8 Such types of action by the United States and other western democracies militated against the hopes of increasingly desperate people in Europeómainly Jews fleeing from Germany and the territories it absorbedóto find a permanent refuge.

The Modern Era of Refugees

Since World War II and its aftermath, the mass migration of refugees has shifted away from Europe to become largelyóthough not exclusivelyóa phenomenon of the developing world. The desire to escape from war, ethnic strife, or dictatorial regimes has been the motive power behind many of these movements.

In the early postwar decades, large-scale refugee movements occurred, for example, between India and Pakistan, across dividing lines in Korea and Vietnam (mostly from north to south), out of Communist China to Hong Kong, from former Palestine to surrounding Arab countries, from Hungary and Cuba to the United States, and among various nations of Africa. 9

The origin of ten of the largest refugee populations in the world today is shown in Table 1. Five of the countries are in Africa, two in Asia, two in Europe (both parts of former Yugoslavia), and one in the Middle Eastóall areas of recent civil war or ethnic conflict. By UNHCR estimates, the total number of the worldís refugees more than doubled between 1980 and 1995 (from 5.7 million to 14.4 million), then fell back to 13.2 million in 1997.

Refugees are not the only ìpeople of concernî to the UNHCR. There are some 30 million internally displaced persons (IDPs) in the world today. One current example is the ethnic Albanians in Kosovo, who have fled ìethnic cleansingî in this province of Serbia to be faced with the alternative perils of starvation or freezing as winter approaches. There are also large numbers of returnees, or refugees who have been repatriated to their home countries, some involuntarily when their host country could or would no longer provide for them. The UNHCR assumes responsibility for IDPs and returnees whom it considers to be endangered, bringing the total number of its ìpeople of concernî to 22.7 million (see Table 2).

The Search for Asylum

The nations of the world have agreed on the definition of a ìrefugeeî and established the right of every refugee to seek asylum. Moreover, once accepted in a country of asylum, refugees are guaranteed the same rights as other legal immigrants, including the right to become citizens What the world has so far been unable to guarantee is that every refugee will in fact be accepted into a safe haven.

According to the UNHCRís 1997 report, The State of the Worldís Refugees: a Humanitarian Agenda, ìThe international regime of refugee protection, painstakingly developed since the beginning of the 20th century, is now under unprecedented pressure.î The report contends that, over the past decade, the 5 million people who have sought asylum in North America, Western Europe, and Australasia have faced ìan array of different measures intended to prevent or deter people from seeking refuge.î10

The United States sets annual quotas for how many refugees it will accept from different continents. Many of these refugees are so designated by the UNHCR, while others fit special categories. For example, the Lautenberg Amendment of 1988 provided for admitting 55,000 Russian Jews each year, a policy only now being reconsidered in light of the Cold Warís end. Overall, the number of refugees the U.S. formally undertakes to resettle is shrinkingófrom 142,000 in 1992, to 78,000 in the current fiscal year.11

Beyond those who arrive in the United States as refugees are the many people who enter the country and then apply for asylum. These asylees do not enjoy the same rights granted to designated refugees, and must wait in line to become permanent residents (which occurs at the rate of 10,000 per year in the United States).

The United States raised new legal barriers to asylum seekers in the Illegal Immigrant Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996.12 The act imposes the first deadline (a one year limit) on filing an application for asylum. It creates bars to asylum for people convicted of minor crimes not formerly considered grounds for deportation. And, it allows asylum seekers to be turned away at ports of entry if they fail to establish a ìcredible fearî of persecution immediately upon arrival in this country. This provision arguably deprives asylum seekers of the due process owing to American citizens and supposed to be guaranteed to refugees.

Many countries of the world are faced with the prospect of large numbers of refugees seeking asylum. It can be difficult to distinguish between people whoóin the time-honored traditionóseek to flee war-torn lands, and those among them who have a ìwell-founded fear of being persecuted.î It is likewise difficult for many refugees to prove that their fear of persecution does have a strong foundation in fact. Adding to the equation is that people fleeing persecution may not be able to obtain the papers necessary for making a legal entry into another country; some resort to illegal entryóadding to the quotient of ìundocumentedî immigrantsóin the hope of making their case for being persecuted at a later time.13

What the UNHCR report asks is howóif the rich nations of the world create more barriers to asylumóthe poorer nations that are already ìhomeî to most of the worldís refugees can be expected to act otherwise. Says the High Commissioner for Refugees, Sadako Ogata, ìThe challenge of the 21st century will be to ensure the security of people. Unless people feel secure in their own homes, the security of states will continue to be theatened.î14


1. Michael R. Marrus, The Unwanted: European Refugees in the Twentieth Century (New York: Oxford University Press, 1985), 8.

2. Ibid.

3. International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences (New York: Macmillan Co. and the Free Press, 1968), 368.

4. Elmer Bendiner, A Time for Angels: the Tragicomic History of the League of Nations (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1975.), 187-190.

5. F. P. Walters, A History of the League of Nations (London: Oxford University Press, 1952), 188.

6. Marrus, 113.

7. Ibid., 145; International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences, 362

8. Marrus, 137.

9. International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences, 363-368.

10. UNHCR, ìThe State of the Worldís Refugees 1997-98, A Humanitarian Agenda, Synopsis,î available at

11. ìDuty to Refugeesî (Editorial), The Washington Post (October 10, 1998): A22.

12. UNHCR ìCountry Profiles, United States of America,î available at

13. Carole Kismaric, Forced Out: The Agony of the Refugee in Our Time, published by Human Rights Watch and the J. M. Kaplan Fund (New York: Random House, 1989).

14. UNHCR, ìThe State of the Worldís Refugees 1997-98.î

Teaching Resources

The UNHCR offers a Teacherís Guide in Human Rights and Refugees with three separate interdisciplinary units for students ages 9 to 11, 12-14, and 15-18. The guide is available at or by writing: UNHCR, Public Information Section, P. O. Box 2500, 1211 Geneva 2 Depot, Switzerland.

Jennifer Truran Rothwell is associate editor of Social Education.

Table 1. UNHCR List of Major Refugee Populations Today1

Country of origin2    Main countries of asylum                       Refugees

Afghanistan           Iran / Pakistan / India / Western Europe         2,647,600

Iraq                  Iran / Syria / Saudi Arabia / Western Europe         630,700

Somalia               Ethiopia / Kenya / Yemen / Djibouti / Western Europe 524,400

Burundi               Tanzania / D.R. Congo / Rwanda / Zambia         515,800

Liberia             Guinea / Côte d'Ivoire / Ghana / Sierra Leone     486,700

Bosnia & Herzegovina   F.R. Yugoslavia / Germany / Croatia / Austria / Sweden / Switzerland 620,000

Sudan         Uganda / D. R. Congo / Ethiopia / Kenya / Central African Republic     351,300

Croatia         F.R. Yugoslavia / Bosnia & Herzegovina             342,000

Sierra         Leone Guinea / Liberia / Gambia                 328,300

Viet Nam         China / France / Sweden / Switzerland         316,600


1. An estimated 3.2 million Palestinians who are covered by a separate mandate of the U.N. Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) are not included in this UNHCR table.

2. Statistics reflecting the countries of origin of a large number of other refugees are not available. Many refugees have acquired the citizenship of the asylum country ó for example, Vietnamese in the USA ó and therefore are not included in the refugee statistics.

Source: Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees

Table 2. UNHCR Estimates of Numbers of ìPeople of Concernî (January 1997)

Total Refugees IDPs** Returnees Others

1980 5.7 million 5.7 million ­ ­ ­

1985 10.5 million 10.5 million ­ ­ ­

1990 14.9 million 14.9 million ­ ­ ­

1995 27.4 million 14.4 million 5.4 million 4.0 million 3.5 million

1997 22.7 million 13.2 million 4.9 million 3.3 million 1.3 million