On Refugees (2): What is a Refugee?

Australia has offshore refugee processing centres set up to the north of the country, at Christmas Island, an Australian external territory, in Nauru which is a sovereign state and on ManusIsland which is part of Papua New Guinea. The role of the latter two in particular is to house and then process ‘boat people’ who have no chance of being settled in Australia, those who arrived after the announcement of the hard-line policy of the previous government (the Rudd Labour Government) to the effect that refugee who tried to get to Australia ‘illegally’, that is to say by boat, would never be settled here. There are many things one can say about Australian governments’ policies and treatment of refugees, nearly all of them critical. It is, however, important to try to address specific aspects and elements of these policies – to pick them apart - and not fall prey to the temptation of just saying that they are unfair or inhumane, and leaving it at that. To make a start, here I want consider simply what it is to be a refugee.



For a canonical (authoritative) statement of just who is a refugee, we can do no better that quote the UNHCR. So the term “refugee” applies to any person 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.


The first point we can take from this description is that being a refugee is not something for which a person should be held accountable, though there is a sense in which it is possible for a person to be responsible for having the status of a refugee. Suppose a person is part of a particular religious group that is persecuted in his home country and that is why he is a refugee. He might have voluntarily joined the group as an adult being fully aware that it was dangerous to do so. In that sense, and in that sense only, he is responsible for being persecuted. The responsibility is causal: joining the group caused him to be persecuted. There is clearly no fault in the sense of moral or criminal wrongdoing here. One might, I suppose, still ask if his action in joining the group were rash, but I shall set that aside.


This case is different from one who is unable to avail himself of the protection of his home because he has committed crimes there, crimes in the usual sense of doing wrong to others, not in relation to some arbitrary stipulation on the statue books – such as certain religious groups being outlawed. A criminal fleeing justice is not a refugee, although he still has rights. Suppose the country in question has terrible penalties for certain acts of wrongdoing, penalties that all civilised persons would condemn. Then we can agree that the criminal should not be sent back to his homeland. But still, he is not a refugee in the accepted sense: what this example shows is the fact that someone should not be repatriated because of the fate that awaits him is not necessarily a refugee. It may therefore be tempting to say that there is a broad category of ‘asylum seekers’ within which we find ‘genuine’ refugees as well as others who should not be repatriated, but that is not really helpful as “asylum” just means “refuge” or “sanctuary”.


So we have clarified the notion of a refugee a little. A refugee is someone who is in danger through not fault of his own and cannot call upon aid from the ‘former country of his habitual residence’. And there can be several reasons why that is: his country may no longer have a civil society, it may be a failed state like Somalia or there may be a civil war in progress as there is in Syria and it seems in Iraq; his country may be at war, as was the case with Bosnia; he may himself be a member of a persecuted minority, for instance having been on the losing side in a civil war, a coup, being part of an outlawed group; and so on. Do we therefore help refugees? Should we help refugees who come by boar and not by the usual channels? If we do not, are we inhumane? And what does it mean to say this?





Added 5/8. I am still learning this set up, so I am not sure how to comment on a comment. Patrick certainly makes good points and I appreciate his interest. My plan is to write a series of posts on refugees and I hope to answer his questions. My general aim in blogging is to try to clarify the basic issues. Perhaps the definition of refugees is obvious.

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Comments: 2
  • #1

    Patrick (Tuesday, 05 August 2014 00:56)

    I had presumed that the point of the initial question was to examine the areas you leave as questions at the end. I doubt there is controversy on your edfinition of a refugee. So it would be more interesting to expore the issue on which Australia, the US and others are being pressed by various possible refugee groups.
    Then, having come to the conclusion that in principle it is right to take in genuine - is that an absolute term or might there be degrees? - refugees, perhaps one also needs consider if there is an acceptable limit in numbers to which any one society could morally constrain itself.

  • #2

    Sarah (Sunday, 10 August 2014 04:02)

    I think it's a really interesting question as to what degree, or whether, societies have obligations to refugees. Aside from the obligations established in law as it currently stands (which is international law and easily overlooked), there are a range of moral systems for making that judgment and I am curious about where Forge might come down on that question.