1951 Refugee ConventionIn 1951 the U.N. Convention Relating to the Status of Refugeesdefined who is a refugee, their rights, and the legal obligations of governments. On the 50th anniversary of that historic convention, the U.N. General Assembly designated June 20th as World Refugee Day and it has been celebrated as such each year since 2001.
In his 2011 World Refugee Day message, U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon stated: "No one wants to become a refugee. No one should have to endure this humiliating and arduous ordeal. Yet, millions do. Even one refugee forced to flee, one refugee forced to return to danger is one too many."
So, just who is a refugee? According to the Convention, "A refugee is someone who is unable or unwilling to return to their country of origin owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion." The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) website also gives definitions for Internally displaced persons, returnees, stateless persons, asylum seekers, and economic migrants. The UNHCR leads and coordinates international efforts to protect refugees and resolve problems.
Each year the President of the United States meets with Congress to determine the maximum number of refugees from each region of the world that will be admitted to the U.S. during the Federal fiscal year. Nine non-governmental resettlement agencies currently work with the U.S. Office of Refugee Resettlement to re-settle refugees to the U.S. One of these is the International Rescue Committee (IRC), which was founded in 1933 at the request of Albert Einstein and today works in 40 countries and 22 U.S. cities. Another, the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants started over 100 years and now does its important work throughout the world in partnership with civil society groups such as International Institutes, and local nonprofits such as CAMBA. Yet another has an even longer history: the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS) grew from organizations founded in 1881 on Manhattan's Lower East Side, Though much of their work during this long history focused on settling and integrating Jews, they work with refugees of any nationality, religion, or place of origin.
World Refugee Day 2011. Photo UNHCR.
Want to know more? The IRC has an interactive course, complete with pre-assessments and quizzes, and the organization Bridging Refugee Youth & Children's Services has put together Refugee 101: FAQs; a flowchart of the refugee process in the U.S.; and links for sources of statistics and more information. Also, this blog post lists some memoirs about the refugee experience.