What is a Refugee?


UCLMUN 2012 from unpadforum.blogspot.com/uclmun.co.uk

In a couple of weeks I will be participating in my first Model United Nations conference – UCLMUN. I’m looking forward to it and I wasn’t that nervous, until I read the delegate guide for the Special Political and Decolonisation Committee (SPECPOL), entitled “Redefining Refugees”.  After reading this lovely 12 page document, I have to say I now feel rather out of my depth and more than a bit confused about the topic. We’re going to be discussing displaced persons and questioning the definition of a “Palestinian refugee”. Before I even attempt to research the Israeli/Palestinian conflict further, I’ve realised I first need to think about the meaning of “refugee”.

The problem is it’s one of those words that you hear on the news all the time, unsurprisingly often in reference to Palestine, along with other words like asylum seeker, displaced person etc. But I don’t know exactly what a refugee is. Or, in better English, WHO a refugee is. Then to make it more complicated, what is the difference between a refugee and an asylum seeker? Going on the Google results I’m not the only person that doesn’t know this either.

So I began with the good old Oxford English Dictionary which defines a refugee as:

 “A person who has been forced to leave his or her home and seek refuge elsewhere, esp. in a foreign country, from war, religious persecution, political troubles, the effects of a natural disaster, etc.; a displaced person.”


UN Refugee Convention 1951 from unhcr.org

Refugee can also mean other things (including a bird?!) but this one makes my point. This was the sort of description I’d been expecting, but although obviously correct (it’s in the OED!)  and similar to the UN definition given in the 1951 Refugee Convention, it’s not always applicable. UNrefugees.org describes an asylum seeker as:

“When people flee their own country and seek sanctuary in another country, they apply for asylum – the right to be recognized as a refugee and receive legal protection and material assistance. An asylum seeker must demonstrate that his or her fear of persecution in his or her home country is well-founded.”

Therefore, to put it simply, anyone who flees from their country seeking refuge can be a refugee but they won’t necessarily be recognised as one. They will be recognised as an asylum seeker until they can prove that they are a refugee.

Right, brilliant. But, what about Palestinian refugees? Do they have a different definition? According to UNRWA:

 “The operational definition of a Palestine refugee is any person whose ‘normal place of residence was Palestine during the period 1 June 1946 to 15 May 1948 and who lost both home and means of livelihood as a result of the 1948 conflict.’
Palestine refugees are persons who fulfil the above definition and descendants of fathers fulfilling the definition.” 


Palestinian refugee camp from bbc.co.uk

There’s also a nice 34 page document that lists all the ways you can fit into the above definition. But the point is that there is a different and more specific definition for Palestinian refugees. When this definition was first used in 1951, there were 860,000 refugees (according to UNRWA figures), there’s now 5 million. Wow. I’m glad I looked this up because as ignorant as it may seem, I didn’t realise that this many people were affected.

Hopefully I can put my new found knowledge to good use in the UCLMUN debates. However, as I’m representing Israel, I’m not sure if I’ll manage to find a solution!


  1. […] I mentioned in my earlier post, I was Israel on SPECPOL. As we were debating Palestinian refugees I knew I wasn’t going to […]

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