What does it mean to be a refugee?

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About 60 million people around the globe have been forced to leave their homes to escape war, violence and persecution. Those who have crossed a border and sought shelter outside of  their  own  countries–and  they  are  commonly  referred to as ‘refugees’, but what exactly does that term mean? The world has known refugees for millennia, but the modern definition was drafted in the UN’s 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees in response to the mass persecutions and displacements of the Second World War. It defines a refugee as someone who is outside their country of nationality, and is unable to return to their home country because of well-founded fears of being persecuted. That persecution may be due to their race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion and is often related to war and violence.


So what happens once someone flees their country? Most refugee journeys are long and perilous, with limited access to shelter, water or food. Since the departure can be sudden and unexpected, belongings might be left behind. And people who are evading conflict do not often have the required documents, like visas, to board airplanes and legally enter other countries. Financial and political factors can also prevent them from traveling by standard routes. This means they can usually only travel by land or sea and may need to entrust their lives to smugglers to help them cross borders. 


Each refugee’s story is different, and many must undergo dangerous journeys with uncertain outcomes. Today, roughly half of the world’s refugees are children, some of them unaccompanied by an adult; a situation that makes them especially vulnerable to child-labor or sexual exploitation.


Chances are if you go back in your own family history, you will discover that at a certain point your ancestors were forced from their homes, either escaping a war or fleeing discrimination and persecution. It would be good of us to remember their stories, when we are hearing those of the people currently displaced, searching for–or on their ways to– a new home.

Today is World Refugee Day and the UNHCR is launching its #WithRefugees petition to send a message to governments that they must work together and do their fair share for refugees. The #WithRefugees asks governments to ensure every refugee child gets an education, that every refugee family has somewhere safe to live, and that every refugee can work or learn new skills to make a positive contribution to their community. We hope for a world where violence will not force people from their homes, but until then, let the world know you stand #WithRefugees.

From the TED-Ed Lesson What does it mean to be a refugee? – Benedetta Berti and Evelien Borgman

Animation by TED-Ed and @j-vuylsteker

Today is World Refugee Day. There are currently more than 65 million displaced persons across the globe. Visit the following sites to learn more about refugees, your country’s refugee resettlement program, and how you can help refugees that have been resettled or who are currently awaiting their next steps:

UNHCR – The UN Refugee Agency

IRC – International Rescue Committee

Welcoming Refugees (USA)

Multifaith Alliance for Syrian Refugees

World Relief

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