The 1951 United Nations Convention relating to the Status of Refugees defines a refugee as someone who, “owing to 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; or who, not having a nationality and being outside the country of his former habitual residence as a result of such events, is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to return to it.”
An individual is a refugee under international law as soon as they fulfill the criteria contained in this definition — in other words, it is not required that a person’s status be verified by some authority in order for them to be declared a refugee.
The US State Department selects a limited number of refugees every year to enter the Refugee Resettlement Program. A refugee can apply for lawful permanent residence one year after arriving in the United States, and for citizenship after five more years. As with any such descriptor, in order to avoid stigma it is considered best practice to avoid using terms like “refugee” to talk about people unless it is directly relevant to a story.
The term “climate refugee” is sometimes used to describe someone who is forced to leave their home and settle either in another part of the same country or in a different country due to natural disasters, which are exacerbated by climate change. It is not an official term, and those fleeing natural disasters are not automatically granted the same legal protections given to refugees as defined by the UN Refugee Convention, though some individuals may also be forced to leave due to war or persecution and thus would be covered under the convention. Given that “climate refugee” does not have a formal definition, the UNHCR recommends phrasing like “persons displaced in the context of disasters and climate change.”
- Key Migration Terms (International Organization for Migration)
- Convention and Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees)
- Refugees and Asylees in the United States (Migration Policy Institute)
A refugee is an individual unwilling or unable to return to their country of nationality due to fear of persecution. As with any such descriptor, in order to avoid stigma it is considered best practice to avoid using terms like “refugee” to talk about people unless it is directly relevant to a story.