Who are my refugee neighbors?

Who are my refugee neighbors?

Here at Forai, everything we do is to further our goal of providing support, dignity, community and economic opportunity to resettled refugee women and their families in St. Louis.  But we want you to know, it is perfectly reasonable to ask:

What, exactly, makes a person a refugee?

Photo by Julie Ricard on Unsplash

The term refugee is one that we hear so often these days that it is easy to assume that we understand what it means and what conditions qualify a person to be identified as a refugee.  Further clouding the issue is the political rhetoric surrounding refugees–we know there is a refugee crisis in the world, but are refugees people in need of aid or people who pose a threat to us somehow?  Both sides of the political spectrum in the United States are willing to use the plight of displaced people to support their particular narrative of what is happening in the world (and why they are the best ones to address the situation).  Thus, it is crucial for us to go beyond a simple understanding of the label “refugee” and be willing to embrace the complexity of this unprecedented human situation.

First, a definition of terms. A person is considered a refugee when they have been forced to flee their home country due to persecution, war, violence, or other forms of conflict. The term "refugee" is legally defined and protected under international law, particularly the 1951 Refugee Convention and its 1967 Protocol, which outline the rights of refugees and the obligations of countries to provide them with protection and assistance.  The United States signed this convention in 1968, thus binding us to meet these obligations under international law.

There are several criteria that must be met for an individual to be recognized as a refugee:

  1. **Well-founded fear of persecution**: A refugee is someone who has a well-founded fear of persecution based on race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or membership in a particular social group. This persecution may be perpetrated by the government or by non-state actors.

  1. **Unable or unwilling to return home**: Refugees are unable or unwilling to return to their home country due to the fear of persecution. This fear must be objectively reasonable, meaning that there is a real threat to their safety and well-being if they were to return.
Photo by Eric Masur on Unsplash
  1. **Outside their country of origin**: Refugees have crossed an international border and are outside their country of origin. They seek refuge in another country or territory where they hope to find safety and protection.

  1. **No other viable options for protection**: Refugees do not have access to effective protection within their own country. This could be due to the breakdown of law and order, lack of functioning institutions, or the government being the perpetrator of persecution.

Does refugee mean the same thing as someone seeking asylum?

It's important to note that not everyone who flees their country is considered a refugee under international law. For example, individuals who leave their home country to escape poverty, natural disasters, or generalized violence may be classified as migrants or asylum seekers, depending on their circumstances. Asylum seekers are individuals who have fled their country and are seeking protection in another country, but their refugee status has not yet been determined.


Photo by Tim Mossholder on Unsplash

Overall, what makes a person a refugee is the combination of their well-founded fear of persecution, their inability to return home safely, and their need for international protection under the legal framework established by the Refugee Convention and Protocol.  

In our next blog post, we will look at some of the specific issues that led some of Forai’s refugee artisans to flee their home countries, as well as their experiences of displacement afterward before resettling in St. Louis.

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