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What is a refugee?

Senior Digital Communications Officer, International Rescue Committee UK

People around the world are forced to make the difficult decision to leave their homes every day. Last year there were over 20 million refugees worldwide.

Already in 2022, millions of refugees from Ukraine have been forced to flee their homes and country over the past few weeks in what has become the fastest-growing humanitarian crisis in Europe since WWII. 

We’re breaking down what it means to be a refugee. 

What is the definition of a refugee? 

The definition of a refugee is someone who has been forced to leave their country in order to escape war and persecution. They are unable to return home until conditions are safe for them again. 

Refugees are protected by international law under the 1951 United Nations Refugee Convention, of which the UK is a signatory. 

What is the difference between a refugee and an asylum seeker? 

An asylum seeker is someone who is seeking international protection from their home country but whose claim is still being processed therefore refugee status has not been determined yet. People can seek asylum in their country of choice.

Asylum seekers must prove to authorities that they meet the criteria to be covered by refugee protections. Not all asylum seekers will be given refugee status. 

What does ‘refugee status’ mean?

National governments - for example, the UK government - have the power to decide if a person can be legally classified as a refugee. This process is called Refugee Status Determination

In the UK, Refugee status allows a person to remain in the UK for five years. During that time they are able to work, study and have access to the NHS and welfare benefits. 

However, under the Nationality and Borders Bill, which proposes a two-tier system of refugee protection, people fleeing conflict zones are at risk of being unfairly penalised for the way they arrive in the UK.

Which country hosts the most refugees?

The majority of the world’s refugees - 73% last year - flee to countries neighbouring their country of origin.

The largest refugee-hosting country is Turkey with 3.65 million refugees. The majority of refugees in Turkey are from Afghanistan, Syria, Bangladesh, Pakistan and Somalia. Many of them have been there for years with limited access to work and often separated from their families.

Poland has become the world's second-largest refugee-hosting country in the world as 2 million people have now fled across the border from Ukraine

Colombia has the third-largest refugee population with more than 1.7 million, many of whom are Venezuelans who’ve fled across the border.

Other countries with large refugee populations include Uganda, Pakistan and Germany.

Why does somebody become a refugee?

There are many reasons why someone might become a refugee. Unfortunately, conflict is one of the biggest causes of displacement. Over the past few years, we’ve seen millions flee countries including Syria, Afghanistan and Ukraine due to conflict ruining their homes and posing dangers to their lives. 

Climate change is driving displacement. 

Our teams around the world have seen how climate is a threat multiplier for conflict, hunger and the forced movement of people. Extreme weather events sparked by climate change combined with existing conflicts or other humanitarian emergencies makes life even more difficult for people living in crisis-affected communities. For example, as Afghanistan continues to grapple with decades of conflict and economic turmoil, over a million people remain displaced due to natural disasters.

Without immediate and concerted action, climate change could force over 200 million people worldwide into internal displacement alone by 2050.

Where do refugees go?

The majority of refugees reside in neighbouring countries that border their own. 85% of the world's refugees are hosted in countries in the global south. 

Some refugees however make their way to European countries. This can be for many different reasons. Whether it's the fact that they already speak English or to join friends or family members who are already living there.

How many refugees are in the UK?

The UK hosts less than 1% of the global refugee population. In the year ending September 2021, the UK resettled 1,171 refugees and received 37,562 asylum applications. Following the Afghanistan crisis in August 2021, the UK government announced they would receive 20,000 refugees from Afghanistan through the Afghan citizens' resettlement scheme

Since the conflict in Ukraine has unfolded, the UK government has made various immigration concessions, including allowing Ukrainians to join family in the UK by applying for visas. The Government has also announced that they plan to launch a new humanitarian sponsorship scheme, which will enable communities in the UK to support refugees from Ukraine - including non-Ukrainian nationals -  to live here. 

So far, the first phase of the scheme only offers shelter to refugees from Ukraine with a link to the UK.