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Refugees near Stalingrad (1942)
War Refugees from North Korea (1952)

A refugee is a person who has temporarily or permanently left their home or previous place of residence because of political coercion, war or life-threatening emergencies. The collective term refugees is often used .

The Geneva Refugee Convention of 1951 , which is the basis of international refugee law , uses a narrower term refugee: According to this, a person is considered to be a refugee who “out of a well-founded fear of persecution because of their race , religion , nationality, membership of a certain social group or because of political opinion, is outside the country is whose nationality it possesses. " People who have been recognized as refugees on the basis of the Geneva Refugee Convention are also referred to as “ Convention refugees ”.

As a rule, these people flee to a refugee camp or an urban center in order to seek asylum , protection and support there. More than 60% of refugees and 80% of internally displaced people live in urban centers.

Legal status

Parties to the Agreement on the Status of Refugees:
  • Parties to the 1951 Agreement
  • Parties to the 1967 Protocol
  • Parties to both contracts
  • Parties to neither of the two contracts
  • The legal status of a refugee is based on international and national regulations:

    • according to the Geneva Refugee Convention, insofar as the state providing protection has acceded to it,
    • within the European Union in accordance with European legal provisions, in particular the Qualification Directive ,
    • according to national legislation (according to which he can apply for asylum and, if necessary, subordinate protection in some countries ).

    International refugee law specifies the reasons for fleeing so that a refugee can expect international protection. These are, for example, the fear of persecution, but also a seriously disrupted public order in the home country. In addition, a border crossing must have taken place in another country. In international refugee law, refugees are mainly defined by the Geneva Refugee Convention (1951), but also by smaller agreements such as that of Addis Ababa (1969) or that of Cartagena (1984).

    According to the Geneva Refugee Convention , whoever is recognized as a Convention refugee

    “[...] because of the well-founded fear of persecution for reasons of race , religion , nationality , membership of a certain social group or because of his political convictions, he is outside the country of which he is a national and does not claim the protection of this country can or does not want to avail itself because of these fears; or who is stateless as a result of such events outside the country in which he had his habitual residence and cannot return there or does not want to return there because of the fears mentioned. "

    - Article 1 of the Geneva Refugee Convention

    The Refugee Convention of the Organization for African Unity , adopted in Addis Ababa in 1969 , also recognizes persons as refugees who “because of external aggression, occupation, foreign rule or because of events that seriously disrupt public order in part or throughout the country , is forced to leave their place of habitual residence in order to seek refuge in another location outside their country of origin or nationality. ”This expanded term of refugee, which also includes people who have been uprooted by events of war and disaster, was also used in established several UN resolutions . However, who is recognized as a refugee is almost entirely at the discretion of the country of residence that processes the application.

    Refugee Christian Assyrians who were expelled from northern Persia in 1919.

    These two definitions only apply to international refugees who are outside their home country and seek political asylum in another country . National refugees such as the German “ expellees ” or “zone refugees” from the Soviet occupation zone must therefore be distinguished from them. Internally displaced persons who find themselves in a “refugee-like situation” are excluded from the Geneva Refugee Convention because they have not crossed a national border. For these there are the contracts of Kampala from the year 2009. Environmental and climate refugees who have been induced to leave their home areas because of environmental damage are not covered by the 1951 convention . War refugees are also not taken into account. Likewise, those who have emigrated for economic reasons do not fall under this definition, even if they come from areas where there is mass misery.

    In 1947, the UN passed the partition plan for Palestine , which resulted in a further division of the area of ​​the League of Nations Mandate for Palestine from 1922 . As a result, on May 14, 1948, Israel was proclaimed a representative democracy with a parliamentary system of government . This was followed by the Palestine War of 1948, in the wake of which around 800,000 Palestine refugees fled to neighboring states. Few were allowed to return after the armistice. These Palestine refugees and their descendants do not fall under the above definitions and treaties. They are under the mandate of the United Nations Aid Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Middle East (UNRWA), one of the UN institutions that deal exclusively with “Palestine refugees” (see Palestinian refugee problem ). The peculiarity of this is that not only people who were directly affected by flight or displacement receive refugee status, but it is inherited . As a result, the number of Palestinian refugees has now risen to around seven million.

    International refugee aid

    Nansen Pass

    After the First World War and the October Revolution, it emerged that the refugee problems could only be solved at the intergovernmental level. In 1921 Fridtjof Nansen was appointed the League of Nations Commissioner for looking after Russian refugees. In 1922, an agreement regulates the issue of special refugee ID cards ( Nansen pass ). In 1928 and 1933, attempts were made for the first time to grant the refugees legal protection. In 1931 the Office international Nansen pour les réfugiés was initially established on an interim basis. The mass exodus from Germany that began in 1933 led to the appointment of a High Commissioner to take care of refugees from Germany and, from 1939, also refugees from Austria. In 1938 the League of Nations created the office of High Commissioner for Refugees, and a permanent intergovernmental refugee committee was established at the Évian Conference that same year. In 1922 Nansen and in 1938 the Office international Nansen pour les réfugiés received the Nobel Peace Prize .

    The United Nations Emergency Relief and Reconstruction Administration, or UNRRA ( United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration ) for short, was an aid organization founded on November 9, 1943 on the initiative of the USA, the Soviet Union, Great Britain and China during the Second World War. It was adopted by the UN and replaced by the International Refugee Organization at the end of 1946 .

    The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), also known as the High Commissioner for Refugees , was founded in 1950 and is responsible for refugee issues around the world. It offers legal protection and organizes accommodation and care in refugee camps and urban centers . Since this accommodation can and should usually only be a temporary solution, the UNHCR strives for permanent solutions, both for the refugees and for the countries of first reception.

    The UNRWA is a special auxiliary internationally for Palestine -Flüchtlinge in the Middle East .

    The IDPs (Internally Displaced Persons short IDP) as a national phenomenon were in respect of national sovereignty not placed under the protection of the Geneva Convention. Their number has risen dramatically since the end of the Cold War, as taking in refugees is no longer seen as an opportunity to demonstrate the superiority of one's own camp, but increasingly as a threatening challenge, and local conflicts are increasingly threatening civilians. The measures to curb border crossings and to return refugees to their home countries also contribute to this. On the part of the UN, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights looks after the concerns of IDPs and develops aid for IDPs on a voluntary international basis.

    UN special envoy for refugees

    The United Nations appoints special ambassadors for the UNHCR:

    Acute solutions

    Refugee camp in Zaire following the genocide in Rwanda , 1994

    In the event of a major refugee movement or crisis, the UNHCR is responsible for setting up refugee camps or at least monitoring their establishment. In countries that do not want camps or where it is not possible to set up camps, the UNHCR ensures that refugees receive support in urban centers. The living conditions in the camps as well as in urban centers are often not optimal, but are geared towards minimum standards - which are often still below. Women and girls in refugee camps in particular are increasingly victims of rape, prostitution and sexually transmitted diseases. In refugee camps, violence and abuse can occur both by other refugees and by local militias and even by authorities, police and other “protectors”.

    In addition to material or financial support for refugees, legal support is another main task of the UNHCR.

    In some countries, such as Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey, refugee children are forced to do manual labor in order to earn money to support their families.

    Permanent solutions

    There are three permanent solutions that the UNHCR is striving for for refugees:

    • Voluntary return to the country of origin: Voluntary return is then possible and is also supported and aimed for when the situation in the country of origin is peaceful and stable enough again and refugees are not exposed to any great risk after their return.
    • Integration in the country of first reception: Countries of first reception can allow refugees permanent integration and naturalization .
    • “Resettlement” in a third country: Resettlement is the acceptance of refugees in third countries that are involved in such UNHCR programs.

    National refugee aid

    The German Refugee Assistance Act of 1965 was a federal law according to which those persons who were not entitled to equalize burdens were nevertheless granted equivalent state benefits. The eligible group of persons included German citizens and persons of German ethnicity who had their place of residence in the German Democratic Republic or in East Berlin .

    Refugee status

    Situation in Germany

    West German postage stamp (1960) for the World Refugee Year

    During the Cold War era , refugees from the Eastern Bloc were collectively recognized in Germany as political refugees.

    The German legal system differentiates between the recognition of the right to asylum ( Article 16a of the  Basic Law ), i.e. the granting of refugee status (as a convention refugee ), and the granting of subsidiary protection (according to the Qualification Directive ).

    In addition, there are quota refugees in Germany who can be admitted on the basis of a political decision by the federal government. They do not go through any asylum or other recognition procedures, but receive a residence permit for humanitarian reasons immediately upon arrival ( Section 23 and Section 24 of the Residence Act). However, they do not (no longer) have the status of recognized refugees according to the Geneva Refugee Convention, so that their legal status can be restricted more severely. For example, residence requirements for quota refugees may be permitted under certain circumstances.


    Recognized refugees who leave the host country to visit the country from which they previously fled the persecution may lose their status as refugees again. In 2015, Switzerland withdrew their status from 189 refugees from Eritrea , Iraq , Vietnam , Bosnia and Herzegovina , Turkey and Tunisia because of corresponding trips. According to newspaper reports from September 2016, in contrast, the administrative regulations in Germany prevent investigating such suspected cases.

    A refugee who is involved in planning and / or carrying out terrorist attacks or other acts that endanger public security can also be expelled. Expulsion for reasons of state security is regulated under international law in Articles 32 and 33 of the Geneva Refugee Convention.


    At the end of 2012, the UNHCR counted 10.5 million refugees worldwide, at the end of 2015 21.3 million refugees, 3.2 million asylum seekers and 40.8 million internally displaced persons. At the beginning of 2020, a total of more than 79.5 million people were on the run - the highest number recorded since the Second World War and the highest value that the UN refugee agency UNHCR has ever recorded in its 70-year history. Three quarters of the refugees who fled abroad lived near their home countries at the end of 2019. Less than ten percent came to Europe. With 1.1 million refugees, Germany was the fifth most important host country after Turkey , Colombia , Pakistan and Uganda .

    The BAMF has been keeping statistics on asylum applications in Germany since 1953. Since then, up to and including 2016, around 5.3 million asylum applications have been made. Of this, the first 36 years 1953–1989 accounted for approx. 18% with around 0.9 million applications and for the 27 years 1990–2016 approx. 82% with around 4.4 million applications. Earlier all-time highs were in 1980 with 107,818 applications and 1992 with 438,191 applications. In the course of the Syrian civil war , the number of refugees skyrocketed in the 2015 refugee crisis in Europe and thus also in Germany . In 2016 alone, 745,545 new applications were received.

    According to the UNHCR, Austria took in two million refugees between 1945 and 2015, of which almost 700,000 remained. The main causes of the influx were the Second World War with 1.4 million displaced persons, the popular uprising in Hungary with 180,000, the Prague Spring with 162,000 refugees and the Yugoslav wars .

    Development of the UNHCR refugee numbers from 1998 to 2019
    status 1998 2000 2002 2004 2006 2008 2010 2012 2014 2015 2016 2017 2018 2019
    refugees 11,480,860 12,129,572 10,594,055 9,573,397 9,877,703 10,489,812 10,549,681 10,497,957 14,385,316 16.111.285 17.187.488 19,941,347 20,360,562 26,000,000
    Internally displaced persons 5,063,880 5,998,501 4,646,641 5,426,539 12,794,268 14,442,227 14,697,804 17,670,368 32.274.619 37.494.172 36,627,127 39.118.516 41,425,147 45,700,000

    Living conditions of refugees

    Before and during the escape

    Refugees may have left their homes because they were persecuted or ill-treated and tortured there. The escape sometimes took place under dramatic and stressful circumstances. Many of them fled sexual violence in their home country, while others experience violence from people smuggled or fellow travelers. Overall, refugees are often inadequately protected against violent attacks - especially politically motivated, racist and sexual attacks. Due to their situation, refugees are often uncertain about where they will be living in months or years and how things will be with family members in their home country.

    Unicef ​​rates unofficial refugee camps in Libya as "nothing more than forced labor camps [...] and makeshift prisons".

    During the asylum procedure

    States party to the Geneva Refugee Convention have to grant refugees who are lawfully resident in the country the same care and public support as locals (Art. 23 GRC). In some countries, the refugees may use their own assets and incomes.

    In most countries, asylum seekers do not initially receive a work permit during their asylum procedure . This is done to try to actually separate those seeking protection from people who use asylum claims to enter the country but are actually migrant workers. Companies are also often reluctant to hire people whose asylum procedures have not yet been completed. The legal uncertainty and the forced unemployment during long proceedings can cause psychological stress for applicants . In addition, due to a lack of professional practice, professional qualifications and expertise are lost , which reduces the employability of the refugees even after the work ban and makes it more difficult to integrate into the labor market later .

    In a study of the living environment and everyday coping of asylum seekers in Germany, the educational scientist Vicki Täubig describes barracked accommodation in refugee accommodation using the concept of the “ total institution ” introduced by Erving Goffman . Many refugees live for months or even years with the uncertainty about the future in spatial confinement and almost without privacy, wait for decisions by the authorities and may have to cope with social difficulties among the groups of residents, including violence.

    Access to lessons or schools can provide a counterbalance. Sometimes cultural or sporting activities are possible - be it on an institutional basis or through private initiatives . In some cases, refugees develop their own activities beyond the initial reception center, be it through social contacts, on the basis of their own educational background or through the initiative of refugee aid associations. Examples include courses at Kiron Open Higher Education . In Germany, the following should also be mentioned: a temporary practice of medicine in the medical care of refugees , the federal voluntary service and academic-student tandems at academic experience Worldwide .

    The media report on sexual abuse, abuse of power and violence in refugee shelters, with a particular risk for women and children. Since attachment disorders between parents and children occur due to traumatic experiences, children look for other caregivers, such as security guards or other adults, and are particularly at risk.

    After receiving refugee status

    According to a study carried out in Germany, migrants react more strongly than natives to stress signals. If permanent social stress is added, they have an increased risk of mental illness. Typically, in the country of destination, they experience being discriminated against as a member of a group . Refugees are also often traumatized , for example through wars, so that if there are existential difficulties in the destination country, retraumatisation can occur. Worldwide, refugees are two to three times as likely to develop depression or psychosis . An increased risk of developing psychosis was found among second-generation migrants. (For the medical and psychotherapeutic care of asylum seekers in Germany, see Asylbewerberleistungsgesetz # Health Care .)

    To support families with parents traumatized by the flight and to prevent transgenerational transmission, the projects ERSTE SCHRITTE and STEP-BY-STEP were set up in Germany.

    Situation of returnees

    World Refugee Days

    Kurt Schwerdtfeger : Refugee family (Memorial of the German East, Burg Castle )

    In memory of refugees and migrants, the 1914 of Pope Benedict XV takes place annually on January 19 . launched World Migrants and Refugees Day. World Refugee Day , established by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), has been celebrated on June 20 every year since 2001 . Also on June 20, Germany has been celebrating the day of remembrance for the victims of flight and displacement since 2015 .

    Concept history

    Even in the post-war period, refugees in Germany were used as a slang term for forced migration, which at that time included the following groups: evacuees , refugees and displaced persons from Central and Eastern Europe , prisoners of war who did not return to their homeland, refugees, who crossed the green border and displaced persons . In the refugee policy discourse, the term refugee was used inconsistently as a collective term or as a label for selected groups of people. In legal and public-political usage, the two groups “expellees and refugees from Eastern and Southeastern Europe” and “ refugees and immigrants from the Soviet zone ” emerged. “Displaced Persons” were legally classified as homeless foreigners .

    In the 1980s, asylum and asylum seekers became the key words. How the language strategy tries to differentiate between (real) refugees and (fake) economic refugees to deny those seeking protection the validity of the motives for leaving their homeland, reminds us of the differentiation between political refugees and fake illegal refugees for the Soviet zone refugees.

    Word of the year

    The Society for German Language (GfdS) decided that refugees would be the word of the year 2015. It is not just about the political topic that dominates 2015, the word is also linguistically interesting, so the reasoning. The GfdS points out negative connotations of the term:

    “Formed from the verb flee and the derivative suffix -ling (› person who is characterized by a quality or characteristic ‹), refugee tends to sound disparaging to linguistically sensitive ears: analogous formations like intruder, upstart or scribe have negative connotations, others like examinee , Apprentice , foundling , convict or protégé have a clearly passive component. As a result, there has recently been talk of refugees as an alternative . It remains to be seen whether this expression will catch on in common parlance. "

    In circles on the political left, the term refugee is often replaced in German-language statements by its English counterpart, Refugee . On the other hand, the objection is made that refugees or refugees are not their own names and are therefore just as problematic. There is therefore also the position to defend the term refugee , which has a more positive connotation than the negative connotation of the term asylum seeker .

    See also

    Portal: Migration and Integration  - Articles, categories and more on migration and flight, intercultural dialogue and integration


    Web links

    Wiktionary: Refugee  - Explanations of meanings, word origins, synonyms, translations
    Commons : Refugees  - Collection of pictures, videos and audio files

    Individual evidence

    1. UNHCR Notice
    2. OAU Convention
    3. Cartagena Decalaration on Refugees
    4. Geneva Convention in full (PDF; 212 kB, accessed on September 7, 2012).
    5. Heinz Theisen : The West and its Middle East. From the clash of civilizations to the battle for civilization . Lau, Reinbek / Munich 2015, online at Google Books .
    6. Jost Delbrück, Rüdiger Wolfrum: Völkerrecht: The state and other subjects of international law, areas under international administration . Walter de Gruyter 2002, ISBN 3-89949-023-1 , p. 186 f.
    7. ^ Catherine Phuong: The International Protection of Internally Displace Persons . Cambridge University Press 2004, ISBN 0-521-82686-1 , p. 3 ff.
    8. a b , April 27, 2017, Ingo Bötig: From refugee team to UN ambassador (April 28, 2017)
    9. Anil Aggrawal (2005): Refugee Medicine . In: Payne-James JJ, Byard RW, Corey TS, Henderson C. (Eds.), Encyclopedia of Forensic and Legal Medicine, Elsevier Academic Press , Vol. 3, pp. 514-525.
    10. Syrian refugee children: Six year olds already have to work. Der Spiegel, July 2, 2015, accessed on May 23, 2016 .
    11. ^ Turkey: Child labor in textile factories. DRadio Wissen, February 2, 2016, accessed on May 23, 2016 .
    13. Judgment of January 15, 2013 - BVerwG 1 C 7.12
    14. Lukas Häuptli: Almost 200 refugees lose asylum status , Neue Zürcher Zeitung of July 3, 2016.
    15. Joseph Hausner: Why the applications are approved at all , Focus from September 13, 2016.
    16. UNHCR Statistical Yearbooks . 2012, table 2.1, p. 26
    17. UNHCR - Global Trends. Forced displacement in 2015, p. 5 , accessed June 20, 2016.
    18. Filippo Gr, i UN High Commissioner for Refugees: UNHCR - Global Trends 2019: Forced Displacement in 2019. Retrieved June 19, 2020 (American English).
    19. Current figures on Asylum (12/2016) , January 11, 2017 (PDF; 998 kB, p. 3, accessed on May 6, 2017).
    20. Asylum figures: Annual balance sheet 2016. BAMF, January 11, 2017.
    21. Since 1945: Austria took in two million refugees , Die Presse of July 30, 2015, accessed on June 11, 2017.
    22. UNHCR Popstats , accessed June 15, 2017.
    23. Filippo Gr, i UN High Commissioner for Refugees: UNHCR - Global Trends 2019: Forced Displacement in 2019. Retrieved June 19, 2020 (American English).
    24. See e.g. B. Rape and Sexual Violence. US Committee for Refugees and Immigrants (USCRI), archived from the original on September 25, 2015 ; accessed on September 24, 2015 (English).
    25. see refugee crisis in Germany 2015 # Xenophobic riots
    26. Professor Freisleder in an AZ interview. Refugees: When Fear Returns. Abendzeitung (AZ), accessed on December 6, 2014 .
    27. Quote: Unofficial detention centers controlled by militia serve as lucrative businesses that profit from trafficking, and are “no more than forced labor camps… and makeshift prisons”, Unicef ​​said. Karen McVeigh: Refugee women and children 'beaten, raped and starved in Libyan hellholes'. The Guardian, February 28, 2017, accessed July 10, 2017 .
    28. Refugees: Bavaria and Baden-Württemberg take money from newcomers. In: Spiegel online. January 21, 2016, accessed April 18, 2018 .
    29. Stricter asylum law in Austria: Refugees should pay hundreds of euros upon entry. In: Spiegel online. April 18, 2018, accessed April 18, 2018 .
    30. ^ A b Alan Bogg, Cathryn Costello, ACL Davies: " Research Handbook on EU Labor Law (Research Handbooks in European Law series) " Edward Elgar, 2016, ISBN 978-1783471119
    31. a b Susanne Bachmann: Discourses about migrants in Swiss integration projects: Between normalization of precariousness and conditioning for marketability , Springer-Verlag, May 2016, ISBN 978-3-658-13922-3 , p. 21 .
    32. See e.g. B. NGOs also demand full access to the labor market for asylum seekers., January 23, 2013, accessed on May 12, 2013 .
    33. Vicki Täubig: Total Institution Asyl: empirical findings on everyday life in organized disintegration. Juventa-Verlag, Weinheim; Munich 2009, ISBN 978-3-7799-1793-9 .
    34. a b child protection officer: "Refugee shelters are a Mecca for pedophiles". Der Tagesspiegel, July 7, 2016, accessed on January 31, 2017 .
    35. Alexander Sarovic: Sexual violence in refugee homes: "Single mothers are particularly at risk". In: Spiegel Online . October 4, 2015, accessed January 31, 2017 .
    36. Hannah Beitzer: violence in refugee camps. “Many parents are unable to look after their children”. Sü , September 28, 2016, accessed on January 31, 2017 .
    37. Why migrants get mentally ill Stress in a foreign country. SWR2, October 22, 2015, accessed on July 25, 2016 .
    38. Karin Böke: Refugees and displaced persons between the right to their old homeland and integration into their new homeland , in: Armin Burkhardt u. a. (Ed.): Political key words in the Adenauer era , de Gruyter, 1996, ISBN 3-11-014236-8 , p. 148 ff.
    39. Karin Böke: Refugees and displaced persons between the right to their old homeland and integration into their new homeland , in: Armin Burkhardt u. a. (Ed.): Political key words in the Adenauer era , de Gruyter, 1996, p. 209.
    40. That's the word of the year 2015 , Focus Online from December 11, 2015.
    41. ^ "Refugee" is word of the year , Süddeutsche Zeitung of December 11, 2015.
    42. GfdS press release of December 11, 2015.
    43. Matthias Heine: Why refugees are now often called “Refugees” . The world . August 24, 2015
    44. Against the term “refugee” - discussion paper. In: Retrieved August 21, 2016 .
    45. Are you now saying refugees or refugees? Retrieved August 21, 2016 .