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We've put together a list of commonly used terms relating to refugees and asylum seekers. This is by no means an extensive list but hopefully will provide some further information about the framework the asylum system operates in.

Definitions are taken from the UNHCR Master Glossary of Terms unless otherwise indicated. Find this document here.

Text in italics has been written by SolidariTee to define terms the UNHCR does not define, or to break down some of the trickier concepts.

Basic terms:

Asylum: The grant, by a State, of protection on its territory to persons from another State who are fleeing persecution or serious danger. Asylum encompasses a variety of elements, including non-refoulement, permission to remain on the territory of the asylum country and humane standards of treatment.

In other words, someone who has been granted asylum in a certain country has been given protection by that country, and is allowed to remain in that country for a certain length of time, access rights within that country, and not be sent back to danger. 

Asylum seeker: An individual who is seeking international protection. In countries with individualized procedures, an asylum-seeker is someone whose claim has not yet been finally decided on by the country in which the claim is submitted. Not every asylum-seeker will ultimately be recognized as a refugee, but every refugee was initially an asylum-seeker

Asylum seekers are people who are seeking, but have not yet been granted, international protection. Asylum seekers are not yet registered refugees under international law but have embarked on the application process, and may or may not be granted a positive decision. 

Refugee: A person who meets the eligibility criteria under the applicable refugee definition, as provided for by international or regional instruments, under UNHCR’s mandate, and/or in national legislation.

A refugee is “someone who is unable or unwilling to return to their country of origin owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion.” (1951 Refugee Convention)

In essence, a refugee is someone who has been forced to flee their country, in many cases because their life is at risk because they are being persecuted as a result of their beliefs or identity.

Refugee camp: A plot of land temporarily made available to host refugees fleeing from an armed conflict in temporary homes. UN Agencies, particularly UNHCR, and other humanitarian organizations provide essential services in refugee camps including food, sanitation, health, medicine and education. These camps are ideally located at least 50 km away from the nearest international border to deter camp raids and other attacks on its civilian occupants.

Note: refugee camps across the world are frequently little more than open air tents or temporary accommodation, and often offer very little in the way of sanitation, hygiene, education opportunities, or quality of life. 

Key legal concepts:

Family reunification: The process of bringing together families, particularly children and elderly dependents with previous care-providers for the purpose of establishing or re establishing long-term care. Separation of families occurs most often during armed conflicts or massive displacements of people.

Families who have been forced to flee their homes at hours' or days' notice, or who have only been able to send one member of the family on the journey at a time, may become scattered in different countries across Europe. Family reunification is the complex legal process of bringing families back together again. 

Deportation: In international humanitarian law, deportation refers to the forced displacement of civilians which is prohibited in times of occupation and non-international armed conflict except when required for their security or imperative military reasons. (From IOM's Glossary on Migration)

Within asylum law, deportation frequently refers to forcibly removing asylum seekers whose application has been rejected from the country they have sought asylum in, or whose claim the country has deemed 'inadmissible' and therefore refuses to process. Countries may either deport people to their country of origin, or to a third country which they passed through where they believe the person could claim asylum instead. 

Children (or minors): Persons who are below the legal age of majority and are therefore not legally independent. This term includes adolescents. Under the Convention on the Rights of the Child, a “child” is a person who is below the age of eighteen, unless the applicable law sets a lower age.

Humanitarian cases (or humanitarian status): Persons who are formally permitted, under national law, to reside in a country on humanitarian grounds. These may include persons who do not qualify for refugee status.

People who receive a rejection on their asylum application, but who come from countries where their life may be at risk if they return as a result of violence and conflict, may be granted humanitarian protection instead of refugee status. This typically involves protection for a smaller length of time, with fewer protections than would be afforded by refugee status, but complies with the principle of non-refoulement (below).

Non-refoulement (the principle of): A core principle of international refugee law that prohibits States from returning refugees in any manner whatsoever to countries or territories in which their lives or freedom may be threatened. The principle of non-refoulement is a part of customary international law and is therefore binding on all States, whether or not they are parties to the 1951 Convention.

In other words, under international law, no country can return someone to a territory where their life, safety, or freedom is at risk. 

Refoulement: When used in relation to refugees and asylum-seekers, the removal of a person to a territory or frontiers of a territory where their life or freedom would be threatened on account of their race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion. The duty of non-refoulement is a part of customary international law and is therefore binding on all States, whether or not they are parties to the 1951 Convention.

Other terminology:

Caseworker: work with asylum seekers and refugees to help them understand their rights and the processes they must go through. May work with lawyers to help individuals navigate asylum and family reunification processes.

Convention on the rights of the child: Adopted in 1989, this treaty sets comprehensive standards for the protection of the rights of children. It is underpinned by four guiding principles, one of which is non-discrimination in the application of its standards to all children. Therefore, refugee children come fully within its scope. The other guiding principles are the “best interest” of the child, the right to life, survival and development, and the right to participation.

Convention relating to the Status of Refugees (1951 Convention): This treaty establishes the most widely applicable framework for the protection of refugees. The Convention was adopted in July 1951 and entered into force in April 1954. Article 1 of the Convention limits its scope to “events occurring before 1 January 1951” but this restriction was removed by the 1967 Protocol relating to the Status of Refugees. As of 1 March 2006, there are 146 States Parties to the 1951 Convention and/or the 1967 Protocol.

Country of first asylum: The first country in which an asylum-seeker has been granted an effective hearing of his/her application for asylum.

Dublin Convention: The Dublin Regulation was adopted by EU Member States in 2003. In most cases, it assigns responsibility for processing an asylum application to the first Member State an asylum seeker enters. This can lead to countries disagreeing on which state is responsible for this, and slow down the asylum process. It also contributes to the disparity in numbers of asylum applications processed by different EU countries, with countries bordering the Mediterranean, most notably Greece, being overwhelmed.

Human rights: Agreed international standards that recognize and protect the dignity and integrity of every individual, without any distinction. Human rights form part of customary international law and are stipulated in a variety of national, regional and international legal documents generally referred to as human rights instruments. The most prominent of these are the United Nations Charter, and the UN Bill of Rights, made up of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and the International Covenant on Economic and Social Rights.

Internally displaced person (IDP): An individual who has been forced or obliged to flee from their home or place of habitual residence, “…in particular as a result of or in order to avoid the effects of armed conflicts, situations of generalized violence, violations of human rights or natural or human-made disasters, and who have not crossed an internationally recognized State border” (according to the Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement).

IDPs are people who have been forced to flee their homes, but have NOT crossed international borders, i.e. have moved within the same country. IDPs may have had to leave their homes as a result of a variety of factors including violence, climate change, and natural disasters, but are not afforded the same protections as refugees under international law. 

International protection: The actions by the international community on the basis of international law, aimed at protecting the fundamental rights of a specific category of persons outside their countries of origin, who lack the national protection of their own countries.


International refugee law: The body of customary international law and international instruments that establishes standards for refugee protection. The cornerstone of refugee law is the 1951 Convention and its 1967 Protocol relating to the Status of Refugees

Group Determination of Refugee Status: A practice by which all persons forming part of a largescale influx are regarded as refugees on a prima facie basis. Group determination ensures that protection and assistance needs are met without prior individual status determination

Particular Social Group (membership of a PSG): One of five possible grounds on the basis of which persecution may be established under the 1951 Convention. A particular social group is a group of persons who either share a common characteristic (other than the risk of persecution) or who are perceived as a group by society. The characteristic will often be one which is innate, unchangeable, or which is otherwise fundamental to identity, conscience, or the exercise of fundamental rights.

Persecution: The core concept of persecution was deliberately not defined in the 1951 Convention, suggesting that the drafters intended it to be interpreted in a sufficiently flexible manner so as to encompass ever-changing forms of persecution. It is understood to comprise human rights abuses or other serious harm, often, but not always, with a systematic or repetitive element.


Rejection at the border: In the refugee context, the refusal to allow an asylum-seeker entry into a prospective country of asylum. Rejection at the border may result in a violation of the principle of non-refoulement.

Refugee status determination: Legal and administrative procedures undertaken by States and/or UNHCR to determine whether an individual should be recognized as a refugee in accordance with national and international law

Resettlement: The transfer of refugees from the country in which they have sought asylum to another State that has agreed to admit them. The refugees will usually be granted asylum or some other form of long-term resident rights and, in many cases, will have the opportunity to become naturalized citizens. For this reason, resettlement is a durable solution as well as a tool for the protection of refugees. It is also a practical example of international burden- and responsibility-sharing.

Less than 1% of the world's refugees are resettled each year. In most cases, resettled refugees have already been granted refugee status in one country, and are being transferred to a different country (not the country they have fled from) who has agreed to host them in the long-term. Resettlement does not prevent the need for people to flee their homes in the first place. 


Resettlement selection criteria: Criteria by which UNHCR and resettlement countries select candidates for resettlement. Resettlement under the auspices of UNHCR is strictly limited to mandate refugees who have a continued need for international protection and who meet the criteria of the UNHCR Resettlement Handbook. Individual countries use a wide range of resettlement criteria.


Safe third country: A country in which an asylum-seeker could have had access to an effective asylum regime, and in which he/she has been physically present prior to arriving in the country in which she/he is applying for asylum.

The safe third country principle was only intended to apply in exceptional circumstances, but has been widely adopted within European asylum policy as a method of controlling the movement of asylum seekers, and of forcing the largest burden of responsibility for processing asylum claims onto the 'border countries' such as Greece and Turkey.


Temporary protection: An arrangement or device developed by States to offer protection of a temporary nature to persons arriving en masse from situations of conflict or generalized violence, without prior individual status determination. Temporary protection has been mostly used in industrialized States

Unaccompanied children: Children who are not in the company of parents or another adult caregiver


Vulnerable: Physically, mentally or socially disadvantaged persons who may be unable to meet their basic needs and may therefore require specific assistance


Well-founded fear of persecution: A key element of the 1951 Convention’s definition of a refugee. Well-foundedness of fear contains both a subjective element (fear of persecution) and an objective element (the fear must have an objectively justifiable basis). According to the 1951 Convention, persecution must be linked to any one of the five specified grounds: race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group and political opinion.

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