The 1951 Refugee Convention relating to the Status of Refugees is the key legal document that defines who is a refugee, their rights and the legal obligations of State parties. The 1967 Protocol relating to the Status of Refugees removed geographical and temporal restrictions from the Convention.
Accordingly, the term "refugee" applies to any person who:
"owing to well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country; or who, not having a nationality and being outside the country of his former habitual residence as a result of such events, is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to return to it."
The publication Protecting Refugees & the Role of UNHCR answers to some of the most frequently asked questions about refugees and, describes UNHCR’s activities in relation to promoting their protection and assistance.
UNHCR also assists many people who do not fall under the strict legal definition of a refugee. "Persons of Concern to UNHCR" is a general term used to describe all people whose protection and assistance needs are of interest to UNHCR. Some of the other Persons of Concern to UNHCR include:
Asylum-Seekers: People who are seeking international protection. An asylum-seeker is someone whose claim has not yet been finally decided by UNHCR or authorities of the country in which he or she has requested refugee status. Not every asylum-seeker will ultimately be recognized as a refugee, but every refugee is initially an asylum-seeker.
Stateless Persons: people who are not recognized by any country as citizens and who, consequently lack the protections flowing from citizenship. Article 1 of the 1954 Convention relating to the Status of Stateless Persons sets out the criteria for statelessness in international law.
Internally Displaced People (IDPs): people who are forcibly displaced within their countries of origin or habitual residnece but who have not cross an internationally recognized State border. People may be internally displaced as a result of armed conflicts, situations of generalized violence, violations of human rights or natural or human-made disasters.
Returnees: refugees who choose volunarily to return to their country of origin, in some circumstances be assisted to return by UNHCR and receive support after they arrive.
In its work with all of these groups, UNHCR pays particular attention to the needs of particular groups and those who may be most vulnerable such as children and young people, women, men, older people, and people with disabilities.
For more information on the people we help around the world, visit our global website.