Chris McMorran

July 2008
  August, 2003

Who Refugees Are

Refugees are people who leave their homes in order to seek safety, or refuge. In general, people become refugees to flee violence, economic disparity, repression, natural disasters, and other harsh living and working conditions.[1] In the context of intractable conflict, refugees are those who flee from inevitable, often long-term violence and other difficult living conditions brought on by the conflict. The United Nations more narrowly defines refugees as "persons who are outside their country and cannot return owing to a well-founded fear of persecution because of their race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or membership in a particular social group."[2]

Though all people who flee conflict can be called refugees, refugee agencies commonly distinguish between refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs) to decide who is covered by international law and receives assistance and who doesn't. For the most part, little assistance reaches a person fleeing a conflict until he or she crosses an international border. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), established in 1950, distinguishes refugees and IDPs this way: "When a fleeing civilian crosses an international frontier, he or she becomes a refugee and as such is eligible to receive international protection and help. If a person in similar circumstances is displaced within his or her home country and becomes an internally displaced person, then assistance and protection is much more difficult."[3]

On Jan. 1, 2002, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees estimated that there were more than 12 million refugees in the world.[4] This number of refugees has remained relatively constant at greater than 10 million since 1981. Some refugees have been living in camps for most of their lives. For example, Afghans have lived in camps in Pakistan and Iran since the early 1980s when the Soviet Union invaded their nation. While some return each year to resettle, almost equal numbers leave to escape new regional fighting. The number of Afghan refugees living abroad now stands at over 3.5 million.[5]

Currently, Asia hosts nearly 50 percent of the world's refugee population, with Africa and Europe both hosting just over 20 percent. Ongoing conflicts in Afghanistan, Iraq, central Africa (Angola, Sudan, Democratic Republic of Congo, and Burundi), and Bosnia-Herzegovina have either created new refugees or prevented refugees from returning home in 2001. Each of these countries now has over 400,000 refugees living abroad, with Afghanistan having at least seven times more than any other.[6]

"Refugees and internally displaced persons...signal our failure to provide basic human security for all." -- Albrecht Schnabel, p. 109

Why Refugees Matter

Refugees are a recognizable result of the breakdown of the economic and/or political situation in an area. Refugees flee violence, discrimination, economic hardship, and political conflict. In some ways, the very existence of refugees is evidence of the world's economic and political disparities, thus proving that many changes need to occur in the world before intractable conflict becomes a thing of the past. According to Albrecht Schnabel, "Refugees and IDPs are prime indicators for social, political, and economic instability, for human atrocities and great human suffering. They signal our failure to provide basic human security for all."[7]

In regions that have little exposure to outside media, refugees can be the first clue that trouble is taking place. North Korean refugees found in China and South Korea tell of famines that the government didn't always acknowledge. Tibetans risking their lives to walk over the Himalayas talk of repression by the Chinese government. When refugees fled Vietnam by boat in 1979 or Cambodia by foot in the late 1970s and early '80s, it was obvious that repressive governments were in power. The same can be said for Cubans who risk their lives to swim or float to Florida.

Refugees have always been used as political pawns. During the Cold War, refugees were considered trophies by the other side. A Soviet defector who spoke of the repressive Soviet regime would further prove the American belief that Communism repressed a person's political and economic freedoms. Today, refugees are used as bargaining chips by powerful governments who don't wish to allow refugees to migrate to their countries. Instead, they convince other governments to take in the refugees in exchange for financial assistance. Refugees and IDPs are also political pawns in places like the Sudan, where opposing armed groups fight over resources that are intended as relief. Refugee camps are raided to kidnap boys as new recruits for the troops.

By understanding what makes a refugee and what life as a refugee is like, it is possible to understand one result of intractable conflicts and conceive of ways to avoid such situations. Also, knowing what refugees encounter allows relief agencies and concerned citizens to provide better assistance that protects refugee independence and human rights and prepares refugees to return home one day or to move elsewhere to a more secure life.

Life as a Refugee


"Where Shall We Flee To Now?"

This drawing was done by a child survivor as part of post-genocide trauma therapy. It is one of many such haunting pictures in Witness to Genocide: The Children of Rwanda. Edited by Richard A. Salem. Published by Friendship Press in conjunction with Conflict Management Initiatives (CMI), the book is available from CMI at

Life as a refugee is defined by uncertainty for all but the wealthiest or those who can reside in the homes of relatives. For the most part, refugees are poor and they seek refuge from a conflict or repressive government, uncertain of their destination or if they will ever return home. They often leave home at a moment's notice, either forcibly or voluntarily, and must leave their possessions behind. Occasionally, even family members are lost in the journey, as was the case in Cambodia during the Pol Pot era. Once refugees arrive at a place of refuge, such as a camp run by the UNHCR or a non-governmental organization (NGO), they must establish a makeshift home, locate friends and family, receive food and water, and try to discover news that will give them some idea of what is happening.

It is unfortunate and ironic that most refugees flee in order to escape human rights violations and violence, yet their vulnerable situation as refugees exposes them to additional human rights violations and violence. Walking away from danger with one's valuables makes a refugee vulnerable to robbery from armed marauders. Young boys are always susceptible to being kidnapped and forced to fight for a military group. Women of all ages are potential rape victims. Children are no longer assured of receiving an adequate education. NGOs have trouble ensuring the safety of those who live in refugee camps. Refugees also occasionally have problems receiving food and water because such resources are often in short supply and are major targets of armed groups.

Life as a refugee also strongly affects one's sense of identity. Because most refugees are economically dependent on relief agencies and have no way of knowing what their situation will be from one day to the next, they are left with few ways of expressing their independence. Refugees are also removed from their everyday cultural reminders. Life as a refugee always brings the possibility of encountering others who are different. Associating with people from different cultures can make one more tolerant, or it can lead to a group or individual losing his or her cultural identity or clinging to it in a more extreme form. For example, when Afghans fled to Iran in the 1980s, they were exposed to a more conservative form of Islam than they had previously practiced. This led to greater pressure on men to place stricter restrictions on the women in their families. These restrictions included the end of education for women, the imposition of arranged marriages, and in some cases the almost total confinement of women to the home.

Additional insights about refugees are offered by Beyond Intractability project participants.

Life After Refugee Status

When one crosses an international border, one is supposed to be protected by international law and is eligible to receive assistance from the UNHCR and other NGOs. Many countries recognize their duty to assist refugees, but not all are forthcoming in providing such assistance. Especially in instances of mass violence and mass exodus, a neighboring country lacks the resources or does not wish to welcome such a large number of refugees. Refugees are often thought to strain the resources, land, economy, and culture of the host country.

For many refugees, returning home is their eventual goal, but only when the government has changed or when the violence has ended. Voluntary repatriation is the ideal, but is not always possible. Unfortunately, some countries refuse to allow refugees to enter and receive protection or the countries only allow refugees to stay a short time and then forcibly repatriate them, often placing refugees in the same dangerous situations that they fled in the first place.

Ideally, a refugee will only remain in the host country for a short time. Intractable conflict, however, often prevents voluntary repatriation. Refugees either end up living in camps for years with little or no hope of returning, or they attempt to become residents of another country. By applying for asylum, a refugee can ask a host government for permission to legally reside and work in the country. Each country has its own unique asylum procedures, but all offer the government's protection from deportment and freedom of movement.

Asylum-seekers can cause political headaches, however, as governments are torn between upholding their moral obligations to protect the persecuted, and their obligations to provide adequate services to their own citizens. In some cases, asylum-seekers put a great economic and cultural strain on a host country. All asylum-seekers need the host nation's social services, but those who are poor, unskilled laborers will be able to contribute little to the nation's tax base. These people will require education and training, which will likely be grudgingly provided by the host country's taxpayers. Some asylum-seekers will also require language training and their children will have special educational needs as well.

Despite these potential drawbacks, governments award asylum to thousands of refugees every year. Even though there are always more applicants than can be provided for, many nations, including the United States, accept asylum-seekers and assist them in adjusting to their new lives. Notable examples include political refugees from China and the so-called Lost Boys of Sudan, a group of boys who walked to refugee camps in Ethiopia and Kenya before finally beginning new lives throughout the United States.[8]

Internally-Displaced Persons

Refugees who fail to cross an international border do not technically qualify as refugees, nor are they eligible for the protection of international law and many refugee services. These internally-displaced persons flee human-rights abuses and violence exactly like refugees do, yet they are turned away at international borders or unable to reach a border due to the dangers that surround them.

Because of the stricter regulations on refugees and the closing of many borders to those who need protection, the problem of IDPs is ever-increasing. Currently, more than 25 million people are displaced by conflict around the world; more than double the number of refugees. Over 12 million IDPs reside in Africa, more than on any other continent.[9] One reason that the number of IDPs is greater than the number of refugees is that many neighboring countries are undergoing equally violent conflicts. Potential refugees decide that it is safer to stay in their home country than to try their luck in another.

The Global IDP Project maintains that "a large share of the world's IDPs do not find shelter in organized camps or protected areas." Many resort to hiding in jungles or living in areas already destroyed by war.[10] Many relief organizations, including the UNHCR and Amnesty International, recognize the plight of IDPs as being as tragic and sometimes more tragic than that of refugees and call for governments and NGOs to do more to assist refugees and IDPs.[11]

Without better conflict resolution and protection of human-rights standards around the world, the future appears bleak for those innocent victims caught in the middle. They will continue to be forced from their homes in attempts to flee violence, with the hope that they can finally find safety in other countries.


Imagine a street with a cluster of six houses, all containing families of various compositions and income levels. The homes are close enough together that the neighbors know each other. Some of the neighbors are friends and some just don't get along. Occasionally a neighbor will visit another neighbor, solidifying relations between them. And sometimes one neighbor will do something that offends another.

One day an argument breaks out in the house of neighbor A. Two family members are arguing over who has control of the family finances. The neighbors hear the argument, and some are concerned, while others try to ignore the problem.

After a few days the conflict escalates. The screaming gets louder and the neighbors hear gunshots. Immediately a member of the household, John, runs out. Two members of his family are fighting and they have shot at each other, though no one is hurt. Obviously, John felt threatened by the shots and left the house. John no longer feels safe in his home and so he tries to find a safe place to stay until the arguing parties resolve their conflict.

John knocks on neighbor B's door and asks if he can come in to safety. The neighbor expresses sympathy for John and gives him some food but says that he cannot come in. Neighbor B already has a full house and is worried that the family doesn't have enough money to house another person for an unknown amount of time. Neighbor B encourages the man to try another house.

John, still fleeing, now tries neighbor C's door. John looks in the door and sees that another argument is taking place in this house, one potentially more dangerous than the one in his own house. He decides to try another house.

John avoids neighbor D because his family has always been at odds with them.

Next, he tries neighbor E. Unfortunately, this family also doesn't want to allow John in. They are very proud of their family heritage and their customs. They tell John that they wish they could help and offer some feeble excuse, but John knows that they don't want him to come in because he looks very different from them. They are concerned that he will negatively affect the family with his different habits. The family lends John a tent but won't let him camp in their yard. John gets the hint and moves on.

Finally John goes to neighbor F. This family also turns him away, saying that they do not want to get involved in the conflict. The family believes that helping John may give the impression that the family is taking sides in family A's conflict.

John gives up, having no place to turn. He decides to sleep in his own yard, dangerously close to the conflict, yet not directly in harm's way. At this point John is an Internally Displaced Person (IDP). If a neighbor had allowed John to enter, he would have become a refugee.

As a bystander to a conflict, one must decide what to do. Doing nothing amounts to allowing the conflict to continue, and possibly escalate. As well, turning away a refugee can lead to the refugee returning to a dangerous area. These are decisions that states must make every day, as conflicts continue around the world and those fleeing conflicts try to cross borders or apply for refugee status.

As one can see in this illustration, there are many reasons for not helping or accepting those displaced by a conflict. Recent years have found states less open to accepting refugees than in the past. States refuse refugees for economic, cultural, and political reasons, as seen above. What is to become of IDPs with nowhere to go? Is life in a temporary camp the best solution for those fleeing from violent conflict? What is the responsibility of those states capable of assisting these people? What can the average citizen do?

[1] Refugees and IDPs displaced by natural disasters, large dam construction projects, other development projects, and mining and oil exploration relate to the issues discussed here but are of peripheral concern with respect to intractable conflict.

[2] United Nations. The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. [basic facts on-line] (Accessed 23 September 2002); available from; Internet. For a more detailed discussion of who qualifies as a refugee, please refer to the section on this Web page called "Who is a refugee?"

[3] United Nations. The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. [office summary on-line] (Accessed 23 September 2002); available from; Internet.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Albrecht Schnabel. "Preventing the Plight of Refugees," Peace Review 13 no. 1 (2001): 109.

[8] Ellen Barry,"The Lost Boys," The Boston Globe. 7 January 2001 [newspaper article on-line] (Accessed 25 September 2002); available from; Internet.

[9] Global IDP Project. [IDP overview on-line] (Accessed 25 September 2002); available from; Internet.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Amnesty International. [recommendations on-line] (Accessed 25 September 2002); available from; Internet.

Use the following to cite this article:
McMorran, Chris. "Refugees." Beyond Intractability. Eds. Guy Burgess and Heidi Burgess. Conflict Information Consortium, University of Colorado, Boulder. Posted: July 2008 <>.

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