Differences between Refugees, Internally Displaced Persons and Asylum Seekers

Differences between Refugees, Internally Displaced Persons and Asylum Seekers


The term refugee is taken in its broader context to mean any person who has escaped his or her country of origin because of the conditions or personal circumstances that they found to be intolerable[1]. The International Red Cross Committee (ICRC) defines refugees as people who because they are at risk or have been victims of persecution in their countries of origin have crosses an international border.[2]

A more restrictive definition of the term refugee is that adopted by the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees. For the protection and rights of refugees, a universal binding document does exist, namely the United Nations Convention and Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees[3] (hereafter: the UN Refugee Convention). This Convention defines a refugee as a 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.

This definition has a time and geographical limitation. The 1967 Protocol lifts the time and geographical limits. These are the two international instruments defining who a refugee is.

The African continent also has a regional instrument concerning refugees: the OAU Convention Governing the Specific Aspects of Refugee Problems in Africa.[4] This Convention is an excellent regional complement to the UN Refugee Convention. In its Article 1.1, it defines refugees with the exact same words as the UN Convention, but it also offers a second definition in Article 1.2: “the term ‘refugee’ shall also apply to every person who, owing to external aggression, occupation, foreign domination or events seriously disturbing public order in either part or the whole of his country of origin or nationality, is compelled to leave his place of habitual residence in order to seek refuge in another place outside his country of origin or nationality”.[5]

The African convention defines a refugee far more expansively and thus offers protection to a wider group of persons. It is seen as effectively complementing the 1951 convention due to the fact that it considers a wider category of persons who may qualify to be considered as refugees because they meet the criteria.[6]

Consequently, the expanded nature of this definition gives the possibility to states to extend protection to a broader category of persons, especially those who flee en masse from a situation of civil war or violence without requiring them to be individually struntinised for asylum determination.[7]

The definition of a refugee according to the 1951 Convention only points out to those who flee their country of origin as a result of persecution or for fear of being persecuted. It did not take into consideration those who fled but still remained within their country of origin that is the internally displaced persons.

From the above mentioned definitions as provided by the United Nations, it can be deciphered that the refugees and IDPs are considered to be two distinct groups under international law. Both refugees and IDPs are involuntarily displaced, but the main difference between them is that refugees cross an internationally recognized State border, which means they no longer fall under the sovereignty of their own State.

As a result, they can claim the special status of “refugee” to gain the protection of their country of refuge. IDPs on the other hand remain within their country of residence, so their home State maintains the primary responsibility for them.

Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs)

The notion “displacement” has caused a lot of confusion over the years as it does not have a universally accepted definition. Countless other terms are also being used, such as expulsion or forced migration. However, displacement undoubtedly has an involuntary character and internal displacement implies movement within State borders.

To know more about Differences between Refugees, Internally Displaced Persons and Asylum Seekers, read other articles about Refugees on this website

However the General Principles on Internal Displacement by the United Nations have gained considerable authority and have been used frequently both on an international and regional level even though it is not a binding document; the description of IDPs it provides is of notable importance. It describes IDPs as:

persons who have been forced or obliged to flee or to leave their homes or places of habitual residence, in particular as a result of or in order to avoid the effects of armed conflict, situations of generalized violence, violations of human rights or natural, human-made disasters, or large scale development projects and who have not crossed an internationally recognized state border.[8]

The above definition presents two elements that are decisive in identifying IDPs: the coercive or involuntary character of the displacement and the fact that the movement must occur without crossing an internationally recognized State border.

They are those who fled their homes during crisis especially civil war but did not seek for refugee outside their country. They still remained within their territorial boundary. The main difference between a refugee and an internally displaced person is that the later crosses an international recognized boundary and seek protection outside the country of origin while the later remains in the country of origin but changes residence as a result of the same causes that forced the former to flee. Internally displaced persons need as much protection as refugees but since they have not crossed an international boundary, they are neither covered by the 1951 Convention nor the UNHCR Statute.

It is well recognized, and often emphasized that because internally displaced persons remain within their country, they should in accordance with established principles of International law; enjoy the protection and assistance of their own government. The responsibility for protecting and assisting IDPs rests first and foremost with their national authorities.

Asylum and Asylum Seeker

Asylum is not part of this long essay but it is of essence to repatriation especially voluntary repatriation. Asylums serve a great purpose to a refugee; it is safety, security and sanctuary to a refugee. It provides the foundation for refugee protections (it protects refugees while they heal from their trauma, while their home condition changes to the better and while they prepare for their voluntary return back to their country of origin) and makes sure that the solutions to the problems of a refugee are pursued.

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The term asylum is not mentioned by the 1951 Convention. It can be defined as legal protection offered by a country to any person who has fled from his country of origin for fear of being persecuted for reasons similar to those outlined in the 1951 Convention.

The premature return of refugees is as a result of the lack of asylum. The return is premature because the country of origin and the refugees are not yet ready for repatriation. Premature repatriation is done in the midst of conflict, without change in the situation that pushes these refugees to leave in the first place.

Refugees in premature return are compelled by the asylum country to leave. This is exactly what is happening with the repatriation of Nigerian refugees from Cameroon. Neither these refugees nor their government is prepared for their repatriation.

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Their current repatriation can be understood as premature. An asylum seeker is somebody whose application for the status of a refugee has not yet been decided. The term applies to anybody who is waiting for a response to his application of a refugee status or who has not yet submitted any application. All those who applied for asylum must not necessary receive a positive answer but majority will.

The asylum seeker is not to be returned to his country of origin until his or her application is examine fairly. An asylum seeker is a person who decides to seek protection not through the UNHCR but directly through a foreign country where he or she thinks his or her life can be protected.



Differences between Refugees, Internally Displaced Persons and Asylum Seekers footnote

[1] G.S., Goodwin-Gill  & J. McAdam  (1996) The Refugees in International Law 3rd edition

[2] ICRC ‘Refugees and displaced persons protected under the international humanitarian law’ available at: <http://www.icrc.org/eng/war-and-law/protected-persons/refugees-displaced-persons/overvie-displaced-protected.htm > accessed: 12 April 2019

[3] United Nations Convention and Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees (UN Refugee Convention), 28 July 1951, Geneva,< www.unhcr.org/3b66c2aa10.html>  accessed 14 April 2019

[4] OAU Convention Governing the Specific Aspects of Refugee Problems in Africa, 10 September 1969, Addis Ababa, <www.unhcr.org/45dc1a682.html> accessed 12 April 2019

[5]  OAU Convention Governing the Specific Aspects of Refugee Problems in Africa, supra n. 3, Art. 1.1 and Art. 1.2

[6] According to art 8(2) of the African Refugee Convention ‘The present convention shall be effective reginal complement in Africa of the 1951 United Nations Refugee Convention on the status of refugees’

[7] B. E., Whitaker  “Changing priorities in refugee protection: The Rwandan repatriation from Tanzania”  21:1&2 Refugee Survey Quarterly, 2002, 336

[8] Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement, 22 July 1998, OCHA/IDP/2004/01, Introduction Art. 2 <www.unhcr.org/43ce1cff2.html>  accessed 14 April 2019

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