Fact Sheet released by the Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration, Department of State, Washington, DC, January 17, 1996.
The basic international law definition of a refugee in the 1951 UN Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees defines a refugee as a person who is outside his/her country and is unable or unwilling to return to that country because of a well-founded fear that she/he will be persecuted because of race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or membership in a particular social group. This definition excludes persons displaced by natural disasters or persons who, although displaced, have not crossed an international border. Also excluded are persons commonly known as "economic migrants", whose primary reason for flight has been a desire for personal betterment rather than persecution per se.
Persons defined as refugees under the Convention are entitled to the protection and status which it and its 1967 Protocol confer. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) provides protection under these instruments and may also provide protection and assistance to other populations deemed to be "of concern" in refugee-like situations.
The U.S. Refugee Act of 1980 (which amended the Immigration and Nationality Act) defines a refugee in words that closely track those of the U.N. Convention. This definition applies to the admission of persons as refugees to the United States under authorities conferred by the Act. The Act allows the President to extend this definition to certain persons still resident in countries he specifies. Under such a determination the U.S. currently operates the Orderly Departure Program from Vietnam and admits as refugees persons still residing in the former Soviet Union and Cuba.
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