The world population is currently undergoing unprecedented levels of forced displacement.
In 2019, the UNHCR counted 70.8 million people worldwide who had been forced from their homes by conflict and persecution. Among them are nearly 25.9 million refugees, over half of whom are under the age of 18.
There are also millions of stateless people who have been denied a nationality and access to basic rights, such as education and health care. 85 per cent of displaced people remain in long-term refugee situations hosted in countries that are usually close to the countries from which they fled.
Only a small amount – 55,680 in 2018 – are permanently resettled in a third country.
The Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees (known as the 1951 Refugee Convention – to which Australia is a signatory) is the key international legal document defining refugees, their rights, and nation states legal obligations.
The convention defines refugees as people who:
- Are outside their country of nationality, and have a well-founded fear of being persecuted because of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion.
- Are unable or unwilling to avail themselves of the protection of that country, or to return there, for fear of persecution.
The definition is legally binding and decision-makers use it to determine if a person is a refugee. The UNHCR definition includes people in a ‘refugee-like’ situation, which means it can extend to people affected by armed conflict.
To be recognised as a refugee involves a formal determination process (usually with UNHCR assistance). People seeking that recognition are known as ‘asylum seekers’.
An inclusive definition recognises that people may have refugee backgrounds without meeting the legal definition of a refugee, which relates to the intergenerational circumstances of Australian-born students whose parents/carers fled persecution.
Foundation House defines ‘refugee background’ to include:
- People found to be refugees (as legally defined).
- Asylum seeking people who arrive in Australia and subsequently apply for protection as refugees.
- People who have suffered persecution in their country of nationality or usual residence.
- Refugees’ immediate family members, including children.