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What is a refugee?

The United Nations 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees (and its 1967 Protocol), to which Australia is a signatory, defines a refugee as:

“Any 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/her nationality and is unable, or owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself/herself of the protection of that country.”

According to UNHCR’s 2014 statistics, there are 19.5 million refugees outside their country of nationality or country of habitual residence.

The majority of the world’s refugees (75.19%) are hosted in countries sharing land or maritime borders with their country of origin. Developing countries host over 86% of the world’s refugees, compared to 70% ten years ago. In 2014, the country hosting the largest number of refugees was Turkey, with 1.59 million refugees.

By the end of 2014, Syria had become the world’s top source country of refugees, overtaking Afghanistan, which had held this position for more than three decades. Today, on average, almost one out of every four refugees is Syrian, with 95 per cent located in surrounding countries.

What is the UN 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees?

The Convention relating to the Status of Refugees, also known as the 1951 Refugee Convention, is a United Nations multilateral treaty that defines who is a refugee, and sets out the rights of individuals who are granted asylum and the responsibilities of nations that grant asylum. The Convention builds on Article 14 of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which recognises the right of persons to seek asylum from persecution in other countries.

(1) Everyone has the right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution.

The Convention was approved at a special United Nations conference on 28 July 1951. As of July 2013, there were 145 parties to the Convention, and 146 to the Protocol. Australia is one of these countries.

Why did we / do we need a Refugee Convention?

Countries have historically been reticent to accept refugees. The Convention was established in the aftermath of World War II in reaction to the poor treatment by Allied states of Jewish refugees fleeing from Nazi Germany. It was initially limited to protecting European refugees from before 1 January 1951 (after World War II), though states could make a declaration that the provisions would apply to refugees from other places. The 1967 Protocol removed geographical and temporal restrictions from the Convention.

What is the UNHCR?

Headquartered in Geneva, Switzerland, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) (established 14 December 1950) protects and supports refugees at the request of a government or the United Nations and assists in their return or resettlement. All refugees in the world are under the UNHCR mandate except Palestinian refugees who fled the current State of Israel between 1947 and 1949, as a result of the 1948 Palestine War, and their descendants, who are assisted by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA).

UNHCR provides protection and assistance not only to refugees, but also to other categories of displaced or needy people. These include asylum seekers, refugees who have returned home but still need help in rebuilding their lives, local civilian communities directly affected by the movements of refugees, stateless people and so-called internally displaced people (IDPs).

What is an IDP?

Internally Displaced People (IDPs) are civilians who have been forced to flee their homes, but who have not reached a neighbouring country and therefore, unlike refugees, are not protected by international law and may find it hard to receive any form of assistance.

There are an estimated 38.2 million IDPs globally, of whom 7.6 million are in the Syrian Arab Republic, the highest number anywhere in the world. By the end of 2013, there were also 6 million IDPs in Colombia.

What is a stateless person?

Statelessness refers to the condition of an individual who is not considered a national by any state. Although stateless people may sometimes also be refugees, the two categories are distinct and both groups are of concern to UNHCR. It is almost impossible to determine the true number of stateless people. The Kurdish people, with a population of more than 20 million people, are the largest stateless ethnic group. They are spread across Iraq, Iran, Syria and Turkey.

What is an asylum seeker?

An asylum seeker is a person who is seeking protection as a refugee and is still waiting to have his/her claim assessed. The Refugee Convention definition is used by the Australian Government to determine whether our country has protection obligations towards asylum seekers. If an asylum seeker who has reached Australia is found to be a refugee, Australia is obliged under international law to offer protection and to ensure that the person is not sent back unwillingly to a country in which they risk being persecuted.

At least 1.66 million people submitted applications for asylum in 2014, the highest level ever recorded. With an estimated 274,700 asylum claims, the Russian Federation became the largest recipient of new individual applications in 2014, followed by Germany (173,100), and the USA (121,200). In Australia 24,300 claims were lodged in 2013.

How do displaced people seek protection?

Seek Asylum

Displaced people may seek asylum in countries that are party to the United Nations Refugee Convention and its Protocol. The UNHCR recognises the difficulties of fleeing from persecution and seeking protection. Often the very nature of persecution means that their only means of escape may be via illegal entry and/or the use of false documentation. Therefore the UNHCR emphasises that a person who has a well‐founded fear of persecution should be viewed as a refugee and not be labelled an ‘illegal immigrant’.

UNHCR Resettlement Program

Resettlement is the transfer of refugees, administered by the UNHCR, from an asylum country to another state that has agreed to admit them and ultimately grant them permanent settlement. Of the 19.5 million refugees of concern to UNHCR around the world, fewer than 1% are resettled annually. In 2014, UNHCR submitted the files of some 103,890 refugees for consideration by resettlement countries.

Only a small number of states take part in UNHCR’s resettlement programme. The United States is the world’s top resettlement country with 66,200 places offered in 2013, while Australia, Canada and the Nordic countries also provide a relatively sizeable number of places annually.

How does Australia fit in with all this?

Australia has a long history of accepting refugees for resettlement. Over 800,000 refugees and displaced persons have settled in Australia since 1945.

In 2014, under the Humanitarian Program, Australia offers 13,750 resettlement places annually to refugees or people who have special humanitarian needs. The Humanitarian Program has two main components:

– offshore resettlement for people in another country, before they come to Australia, who are found to be refugees (and others whose need for protection has been acknowledged)

– onshore protection for people who come to Australia with a valid visa (even if it is a tourist visa) and make a successful claim for asylum after they arrive.

In September 2015, the Australian Federal Government announced it would accept 12,000 extra refugees affected by conflict in Syria and Iraq. This additional quota is on top of the existing 13,750 places already set aside for this financial year.

It must be noted that the Australian government differentiates between those asylum seekers who arrive to Australia by plane with a valid visa and those who arrive to Australia by boat without a valid visa.

Those asylum seekers who arrive to Australia by boat without a valid visa will not be resettled in Australia and instead will either be returned to Indonesia by boat or be transferred to an offshore processing centre in Manus Island or Nauru where their claims for protection will be processed under that country’s laws. These policies of deterrence directly contravene the rights of refugees and the responsibilities of signatories as outlined by the United Nations Refugee Convention and its Protocol.

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