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Who is a refugee?
A refugee is legally defined as a person who is outside his or her country of nationality and is unable to return due to a well-founded fear of persecution because of his or her race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or membership in a particular social group. By receiving refugee status, individuals are guaranteed protection of their basic human rights, and cannot be forced to return to a country where they fear persecution.
In 2011, there were 15.2 million refugees around the world, including 4.8 million Palestinian refugees, and it is estimated that 80 percent of refugees are women and children. According to the UN Refugee Agency, the leading countries of origin for refugees in 2011 were:
Find more refugee statistics from the UN Refugee Agency.
Internally displaced people (IDPs) have been forced to leave their homes as a result of armed conflict, generalized violence, or human rights violations, but unlike refugees they have not crossed an international border. Although internally displaced people outnumber refugees by more than two to one, no single UN or other international agency has responsibility for responding to internal displacement. As a result, the global response to the needs of IDPs is often ineffective.
In 2011, there were an estimated 26.4 million people displaced internally by conflict. The largest populations of internally displaced people are found in:
Read more about Refugees International’s work for internally displaced people.
Find more statistics from the Internal Displacement Monitoring Center.
Stateless people are individuals who do not have a legal bond of nationality with any state, including people who have never acquired citizenship of their birth country or who have lost their citizenship and have no claim to citizenship of another state. Children of stateless people often are born into statelessness and few manage to escape that status. According to the 1954 Convention relating to the Status of Stateless Persons, a de jure stateless person is someone “not considered as a national by any State under the operation of its law.” Persons are considered de facto stateless if they have an ineffective nationality, cannot prove they are legally stateless, or if one or more countries dispute their citizenship. The Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has the international mandate for responding to the needs of stateless people and leading the global effort to reduce statelessness. Historically, however, the agency has devoted few resources to this aspect of its mandate.
There are an estimated twelve million stateless people around the world. Refugees International focuses its efforts on reducing statelessness, particularly for the following populations:
Read more about Refugees International work for stateless people.
An asylum seeker is a person who is seeking to be recognized as a refugee, but has not yet received formal refugee status. During 2011, a total of 895,000 individual applications for asylum or refugee status were submitted to governments and UNHCR offices in 166 countries. 2011 saw a significant number of people seeking asylum or refugee status from countries experiencing recent or ongoing conflict or security concerns. This includes asylum-seekers originating from Afghanistan, Côte d’Ivoire, Libya, the Syrian Arab Republic, and Tunisia.
Can a country refuse to admit refugees?
Under international law, refugees must not be forced back to the countries they have fled. This principle of non-refoulement is the key provision of the 1951 UN Refugee Convention, which defines international law and guidelines to protect refugees. Host governments are primarily responsible for protecting refugees and most states fulfill their obligations to do so. Others, however, avoid their responsibility by pointing to a lack of resources, threats to national security, fears of domestic political destabilization, or the arrival of even greater numbers of refugees. This is a violation of international law that is binding on all states.
Learn more about the 1951 Refugee Convention.
The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) speaks of three “durable solutions” to refugee crises: return; local integration; and third country resettlement.
The most desirable way to end forced displacement is for people to return home when conflict ends. To return in safety and dignity, families need help with transportation and require basic goods for restarting their lives, including a provisional supply of food, seeds and tools, and building materials for home repair or construction. In addition, support for the reconstruction of schools and health clinics is also critical. Read more about Refugees International’s work on Return & Reintegration.
If instability persists or if the individual will face persecution when they return, then integrating into the country of asylum is another option. Most countries hosting refugees, however, are reluctant to allow refugees to integrate and become citizens, fearing competition for scarce resources between the refugees and residents of a particular locale.
Resettlement to a third country can also be a solution for refugees who cannot return home, cannot establish a new life in their country of asylum, or are considered to be particularly vulnerable. Resettlement can never be an option for more than a tiny minority of the world’s refugee population, but still benefits tens of thousands of refugees who have made new lives in countries such as the United States, Canada, Sweden, and Norway.
How does Refugees International help displaced and stateless people?
Refugees International advocates for lifesaving assistance and protection for displaced people and promotes solutions to displacement crises. As the leading advocacy organization on refugee crises, we successfully challenge policy makers and aid agencies to improve the lives of displaced people around the world and increase stability before conflict spreads. We decline government or UN funding, allowing our advocacy to be fearless and independent. Our field-based knowledge of humanitarian emergencies and expert recommendations are sought out by global leaders whose decisions bring immediate relief to refugees and solutions to large-scale crises.
Due to our efforts, refugees receive food, medicine and education; displaced people return home; peacekeepers protect the displaced from harm; and stateless people obtain legal status. For example, as South Sudan’s 2011 referendum for independence approached, RI worked at all levels to sound the alarm about the risk of violence between north and south Sudan, prompting humanitarian agencies to launch more effective plans to respond to vulnerable communities. We were also the first to call attention to potential dangers faced by southern Sudanese living in the north, who could lose all citizenship rights and protections now that the south has opted for independence. Our call to guarantee their safety has been taken up by the U.S. Administration and other international organizations. Read more about our impact.
Why does Refugees International call for improved peacekeeping forces?
Effective peacekeeping operations can transform conflict and bring about a stable peace so that displaced people can return home. Yet too often, under-funded peacekeeping missions with weak mandates can only keep a lid on a crisis situation. Refugees International seeks to improve the United Nations' and other regional institutions' abilities to effectively use peacekeeping operations to protect civilians and also aims to generate greater political will to send peacekeepers in when genocide and crimes against humanity occur.
Read more about Refugees International’s work on peacekeeping.
Where does Refugees International get its information?
Each year, Refugees International conducts 15 to 20 field missions to identify displaced people’s needs for basic services such as food, water, health care, housing, education and protection from harm. On these missions, we speak directly with displaced people to understand what they need and interview representatives from the UN, local and international non-governmental organizations, aid agencies and local governments. This helps us develop a comprehensive picture of the needs of displaced people in a given crisis and what immediate actions might be appropriate to respond to these needs. International agency personnel are especially willing to assist Refugees International as they are often constrained from speaking freely about the problems they are witnessing. Our method of basing our solutions on information gathering in the field increases our credibility, as we can tell members of the U.S. Administration and Congress and the United Nations that our information is based on what we have seen directly.
Refugees International does not accept any government or UN funding. This allows us to say what needs to be said to those who need to hear it. We rely on individuals, foundations and corporations to support our lifesaving work.
Download our annual report to learn more about our sources of funding and where our money goes.