Who is a refugee

A man and his wife use a stroller to carry essential possessions across the border at night.
Escaping across the border from Syria to Jordan. © UNHCR/ Jared J.Kohler



A refugee is a person who has fled his or her own country and cannot return due to fear of persecution, and has been given refugee status. Refugee status is given to applicants by the United Nations or by a third party country, such as Australia.

According to the United Nations Convention relating to the Status of Refugees [PDF], as amended by its 1967 Protocol (the Refugee Convention), a refugee is a person who is:

  • outside their own country and
  • has a well-founded fear of persecution due to his/ her race, religion, nationality, member of a particular social group or political opinion, and is
  • unable or unwilling to return.

The United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) estimated that at the end of 2012 there were 15.4 million refugees in the world.

More information

Amnesty International Australia - Rethink Refugees

UNHCR - Malian refugees living in Nigeria

UNHCR - UNHCR Global Trends 2012, Displacement: The New 21st Century Challenge


A migrant is someone who voluntarily chooses to leave his or her own country and make a new life in another country. Australia has a long history of migration. People have been moving to Australia for work and better opportunities since British colonisation in 1788.

More information

Department of Immigration and Border Protection - Fact sheet 4: More than 65 Years of Post-war Migration

Watch the video Sweet Harvest for an example of Australia's post war migration.

Asylum seekers

An asylum seeker is a person who has fled from his or her own country due to fear of persecution and has applied for (legal and physical) protection in another country but has not yet had their claim for protection assessed.

A person remains an asylum seeker until their protection ‘status’ has been determined.

More information

United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR)

Australian Asylum Seeker Resource Centre (ASRC)

Internally displaced persons (IDPs)

An internally displaced person is someone who is living inside the borders of their own country, but is unable to safely live in their own home or region.

The Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC) monitors internal displacement due to conflict or human rights abuses worldwide. The UNHCR estimated that in 2012 a further 7.6 million people were internally displaced due to conflict or persecution.

More information

UNHCR - UNHCR Global Trends 2012, Displacement: The New 21st Century Challenge

IDMC - Map of world showing numbers of IDP by geographical area.

For photos and examples of life as an IDP refer to the UNHCR case studies.

A photo story about people on the move within the Democratic Republic of Congo is available via UNICEF.

Stateless persons

A stateless person is someone who does not have a nationality recognised by any country. Some examples are:

  • Palestinian people living in Palestine/ Israel
  • Ethnic Chinese people living in Brunei
  • Rohingya in Myanmar
  • Kurds in Syria / Feili Kurds in Iraq
  • Nubians in Kenya
  • Biharis in Bangladesh.

More information

UNHCR - Stateless People: Searching for Citizenship

For more footage on the plight of Myanmar's Rohingya people watch the clip on AlJazeera or France24 news.