Understanding the Refugee Experience

Original Editor - Naomi O'Reilly

Top Contributors - Naomi O'Reilly and Kim Jackson  


There have been internally displaced people, asylum seekers, and refugees spread throughout history, as long as there has been war, conflict, persecution and political instability. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) at the end of 2019 there were 79.5 Million people worldwide who have forcibly had to flee their home including 26 Million Refugees, 45.7 Million Internally Displaced Persons and over 4.2 million Asylum Seekers. Currently there are more refugees world-wide than there have been at any time since the end of World War 2.

"It is important to understand the background of the refugees, because each one has been through different circumstances, have different backgrounds and different believes. The therapist need to know how to communicate with the refugee and what they have been through, to overcome this" Anonymous Refugee


There is a wide range of terminology focused around the movement of people, with terms often mixed together and sometimes used interchangeably. Having a good understanding of these various terms and definitions are important.


According to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Migrants, the term 'Migrant' refers to all situations where the decision to migrate, or leave your home country for another country, is taken freely by the individual concerned, for reasons of 'personal convenience' and without intervention of an external compelling factor. This distinction is important for governments, since countries handle migrants under their own immigration laws and processes. Migrants choose to move not because of a direct threat or persecution but mainly to improve their lives and standard of living through: [1]

  • Finding Work
  • Seeking Better Education
  • Reuniting with Family

Asylum Seeker

When people flee their own country and seek sanctuary in another country, they apply for asylum or the right to be recognised as a refugee and receive legal protection and material assistance. An asylum seeker must demonstrate that their fear of persecution in their home country is well-founded. 

An asylum seeker is someone who claims to be a refugee but whose claim has not yet been fully evaluated. This person would have applied for asylum on the grounds that returning to their home country would lead to persecution on account of race, religion, nationality or political beliefs. Someone is an asylum seeker for so long as their application is pending. So not every asylum seeker will be recognised as a refugee, but every refugee is initially an asylum seeker. 

Internally Displaced Person

According to the United Nations Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement, an Internally Displaced Person, or IDP, are "persons or groups of 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 generalised violence, violations of human rights or natural or human-made disasters, and who have not crossed an internationally recognised state border." [2] There are two important elements in the IDP definition: the movement is involuntary and takes place within national borders. Prevention of forced displacement and the protection of IDPs is a primary responsibility of the national authority.  

While often referred to as refugees, IDP's do not fall within the legal definitions of a refugee as they remain entitled to all the rights and guarantees as citizens and other habitual residents of their home country and remain under the protection of its government. In many cases the displacement occurs as their government, which makes IDP's more vulnerable to further displacement and other protection risks, such as lack of access to basic services, family separation, sexual and gender based violence, trafficking, discrimination and harassment.[3]   

According to the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC) at the end of 2019 there were 45.7 million people IDP's, as a result of conflict and violence or human rights violations. [4] Colombia, Syria, Democratic Republic of the Congo and Yemen are countries with some of the largest internally displaced populations.  


A refugee is someone who has been forced to flee their country and crossed an international border to find safety in another country as a result of persecution, war or violence. Refugees are defined by the 1951 Refugee Convention as: “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.” The leading causes of refugees fleeing their home country include war, ethnic, tribal and religious violence, with their situation so perilous that they cross national borders to seek safety in nearby countries and seek to gain access to assistance from other states and aid organisations.

A vital part of being recognised as a refugee is Refugee Status Determination (RSD), a legal process that governments or UNHCR use to determine whether a person seeking international protection is considered a refugee under International, National or Regional Law.The process can be lengthy, complicated and is certainly imperfect. There is still no single uniting model for RSD. States do have the primary responsibility for determining the status of asylum seekers but UNHCR will step in where states are unable or unwilling.

Currently just five countries; Syria, Venezuela, Afghanistan, South Sudan and Myanmar, account for 68% of all those displaced across borders.

Stateless Person

According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), a stateless person is someone who is not a citizen of any country, which can occur due to a variety of reasons, including sovereign, legal, technical or administrative decisions or oversights. Citizenship is the legal bond between a government and an individual, and allows for certain political, economic, social and other rights of the individual, as well as the responsibilities of both government and citizen.


Asylum Seekers

Internally Displaced Persons


Stateless Person


  1. 1.0 1.1 UNHCR Teaching About Refugees. Who Is A Migrant. Available from: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yRPfM5Oj-QA[last accessed 24/07/2020]
  2. United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA), Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement. 2004. Available from: https://cms.emergency.unhcr.org/documents/11982/44794/UN%2C+Guiding+Principles+on+Internal+Displacement%2C+1998/47806967-dd92-4d67-ad47-578aa8b5d11f [Accessed 27th June 2020].
  3. United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). Emergency Handbook - IDP Definition. Available from: https://emergency.unhcr.org/entry/67716/idp-definition (Accessed 2nd June 2020).
  4. United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) Ireland. Internally Displaced People. Available from: https://www.unhcr.org/en-ie/internally-displaced-people.html (Accessed 27th July 2020).
  5. UNHCR Teaching About Refugees. Who Is An Asylum Seeker. Available from: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=E1E_tiagn8Q[last accessed 24/07/2020]
  6. UNHCR Teaching About Refugees. Who Is A Refugee. Available from: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GvzZGplGbL8[last accessed 24/07/2020]
  7. UNHCR Teaching About Refugees. Who Is An Internally Displaced Person. Available from: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DCzpVQkencw[last accessed 24/07/2020]