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Table 1 Definitions of different groups of forcibly displaced populations and reasons for movement

From: Mapping differential vulnerabilities and rights: ‘opening’ access to social protection for forcibly displaced populations

Group Definition Drivers of Movement
Refugees The 1951 Convention on the Status of Refugees, defines refugees as those individuals who ‘owing to well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, [are] outside the country of his nationality and [are] unable or, owing to such fear, [are] unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country’a Primary: • Persecution • Events seriously disturbing public order • Generalized violence • Massive human rights violations • Conflict • Lack of state protection • Movement is gender and age-biased depending on culture and context Secondary (especially important in choosing destination): • Poverty/Opportunity • Diaspora/family connections Second and third generation refugees may never have engaged in migration, but have been born into exile.
In Africa, the 1969 OAU Convention further included those fleeing ‘events seriously disturbing the public order’b
The 1984 Cartagena Declaration similarly expanded the definition to cover those fleeing ‘generalized violence, foreign aggression, internal conflicts, massive violation of human rights or other circumstances which have seriously disturbed public order’ in Latin America, Mexico and Panamac
Palestinian refugees are defined by the United Nations’ Relief and Work Agency (UNRWA) as those ‘whose normal place of residence was Palestine during the period 1 June 1946 to 15 May 1948, and who lost both home and means of livelihood as a result of the 1948 conflict’, as well as their patrilineal descendantsd
In cases of mass influx due to conflict or violence, it is not always possible or necessary to conduct individual interviews to determine an asylum claim. Depending on the legal system in place, refugees’ claims may instead be recognized on a prima facie basis due to ‘readily apparent’ circumstances in the country of origin (e.g. Syrians, Somalis).
Asylum Seekers An individual who has made a claim for refugee status, but whose individual claim has not yet been subject to determination, either by national authorities or by UNHCR As refugees
Internally Displaced Persons IDPs are those who have been forced to flee their home, ‘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 or human-made disasters, and who have not crossed an internationally recognized border’e Primary: • Persecution • Conflict • Generalized violence • Human rights violations • Natural or man-made disasters (e.g. earthquake, famine) • Climate change Secondary: • Poverty/Opportunity • Language/Ethnic connections
Returnees Returnees include refugees voluntarily repatriating at the end of conflict, as part of a “durable solution” to their displacement. Equally, failed asylum seekers and other migrants moving or staying irregularly may be subject to enforced removals and/or offered assistance to return and reintegrate voluntarily to their country of origin (AVRR). Primary (refugees): • Improved security/peace • Improved development prospects • Family reunification Primary (other migrants): • Legal deportation • AVRR programme • Care responsibilities and family reunification
Other forcibly displaced (including climate change) People may also be forced to cross a border for reasons other than conflict or persecution, for instance as a result of natural disaster or climate change. Depending on where they are, such persons often do not qualify for refugee status, but they be granted humanitarian leave or some other form of temporary protection (e.g. the US’ “Temporary Protected Status”)f Primary: • Natural or man-made disasters (e.g. earthquake, famine) • Climate change • Insecurity Secondary: • Poverty/Opportunity • Diaspora/family connections
  1. aUN General Assembly, Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, 28 July 1951, United Nations, Treaty Series, vol. 189, p. 137. Retrieved from
  2. bOrganization of African Unity (OAU), Convention Governing the Specific Aspects of Refugee Problems in Africa (“OAU Convention”), 10 September 1969, 1001 U.N.T.S. 45. Retrieved from
  3. cRegional Refugee Instruments & Related, Cartagena Declaration on Refugees, Colloquium on the International Protection of Refugees in Central America, Mexico and Panama, 22 November 1984. Retrieved from
  4. dUnited Nations Relief and Works Agency, Palestinian Refugees. Retrieved from
  5. eUN Commission on Human Rights, Report of the Representative of the Secretary-General, Mr. Francis M. Deng, submitted pursuant to Commission resolution 1997/39. Addendum: Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement, 11 February 1998, E/CN.4/1998/53/Add.2. Retrieved from, Art. 2
  6. fUnited States Citizen and Immigration Service, Temporary Protected Status. Retrieved from