Human Rights: Refugees Workshop

The office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Vienna is small, but is responsible for protecting the rights of refugees, forcibly displaced people, and stateless people as defined under the Geneva Convention. It was established in 1950 and was intended to be temporary institution to deal with refugee crises after WWII, but it soon became evident that there were many such crises around the world, and so UNHCR continues to exist.

The term refugee is used a lot in media and casual conversation, but the term refugee is actually very specifically defined in the Geneva Conventions as somebody who has a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside his/her country of nationality, and is unwilling or unable to be protected by that country.

There are also many internally displaced people, who are not by definition refugees because they are not outside their country of nationality, but who may have had to unwillingly move due to war, natural disaster, or political reasons. Poverty is also not included in the definition of refugee, so fleeing one’s home due to poverty does not allow for refugee status. This is why people differentiate between refugees and economic migrants, but it is not entirely clear why this distinction should exist, and should possibly be questioned more.

Refugees have extreme hardships they have to overcome, from being uprooted and fleeing from their homes, to trying to find their way in a foreign land without knowledge of the language or culture, and often without family or other strong networks. UNHCR also does a great deal of work in the field, helping to set up refugee camps in crisis areas.

Human Rights: Refugees Workshop report by Carmen Gruber

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