Are we fleeing the refugee definition?

Providing sanctuary or asylum to refugees is a humanitarian ideal that has been honoured by nation states since the beginning of history. However, in recent times refugees have become an international issue with difficult and often politically unpalatable solutions.

Part of the problem for governments is determining “legitimate” refugees from opportunists. Economic migrants and refugees often travel in exactly the same way and end up in exactly the same places (including detention centres). I think at the heart of the problem is our poor understanding of the word, refugee.

The word refugee comes directly from the French word, refugié, from refugier to take shelter, protect. In 1685 the Edict of Fontainebleau outlawed Protestantism in France, and hundreds of thousands of French protestants, known as the Huguenots, fled to England, the Netherlands, Switzerland, South Africa, Germany and Prussia.

The Huguenots were the first people to be called refugees for seeking asylum from persecution. Under Elizabeth I, English catholics went the other way, seeking sanctuary in Rome and France.

The derivation of the name Huguenots is uncertain and obscure. It was somewhat derogatory. Some suggestions of its origins are that it refers to a Swiss politician, Hugues; the French King, Hugues Capet; the Flemish word, Huisgenoten meaning housmates, which referred to those who studied protestantism secretly together; or les guenon de Hus meaning the monkeys or apes of Jan Hus, who was an early church reformer burnt at the stake by the Catholics for heresy.

Refugee was used in the First World War for those involved in the massed movement of civilians from Flanders heading west to escape the artillery bombardment and fighting. Refugee in this sense had evolved from “one seeking asylum” to “one fleeing home”.

International bureaucrats have tried to define refugees. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR)  was established in 1950 to deal with Europeans displaced by World War II. The 1951 Refugee Convention that was used to establish the UNHCR defines a refugee as someone who:

“owing to a 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 to, or owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country.”

The UNHCR definition tries to make a distinction between refugees who are forced to leave their country for fear of persecution and economic migrants who chose to leave their country to improve their prospects. The bureaucratic approach tries to create legitimacy (“well-founded fear”) where common usage still sees refugees more widely as those fleeing their home or seeking asylum. Fear of persecution, that reduces your access to opportunities, is not far-removed from the fear of lack of opportunity to provide an adequate standard of living for your children.

Our conflicted opinions of refugees stems in part from our lack of adequate words to describe them.