Being a Refugee is a Circumstance, Not a Choice


We live in a rapidly changing world where it is unbelievable to hear that we are currently facing the worst global refugee crisis. Here, approximately one person is forcibly displaced every two seconds as a result of a conflict or persecution. People often speak about human rights but it turns meaningless when we see the number of refugees increasing at an alarming rate. We are witnessing a massive shift in humanity due to racial violence, disorder, religious virulence, extreme nationalism, political and social conflict, etc.

An unprecedented 68.5 million people around the world have been forced out from home. Among them, nearly 25.4 million are refugees. 57% of the total refugees are from three countries – South Sudan, Afghanistan and Syria, among which, over half of them are under the age of eighteen[1]. 40  million people are internally displaced persons (IDP), i.e. people 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 generalized violence, violations of human rights or natural or human-made disasters, and who have not crossed an internationally recognized border [2] .There are also an estimated 10 million stateless people who have been denied a nationality and access to basic rights such as education, healthcare, employment and freedom of movement. [3]

Most of these ill-fated displaced persons and refugees are largely living in their neighboring countries where their minimum human and fundamental rights are not secured. Those host communities making an effort to provide relief are often unprepared and overburdened by the sheer numbers arriving. Responsibilities are not well distributed: a small number of countries and communities host disproportionate numbers of refugees, asylum seekers and migrants.

Who wants to leave his beloved country? The answer probably is ‘no one’. But when their lives and properties are in peril, their ultimate goal is to leave their country to seek security and hence, become refugees. Recently, refugees have been the focus of considerable love and public concern. Their journeys can be fraught with peril; appalling tales of tragedies feature daily in the headlines.

A question would now arise – who are refugees? The first modern definition of international refugee status came out under the League of Nations in 1921 from the Commission for Refugees. Following the World War-II, and in response to the large numbers of people fleeing Eastern Europe, the 1951 UN Refugee Convention adopted the following definition relating to the Refugee in Article 1.A.2:

The term “refugee” shall apply to any person who:

“Owing to well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable or owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country; or who, not having a nationality and being outside the country of his former habitual residence as a result of such events, is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to return to it.” [4]

The 1951 Convention is the key legal document in defining refugees, their rights and legal obligations of the states.  Initially, the 1951 Convention was more or less limited to protecting European refugees in the aftermath of World War II. But the 1967 Protocol expanded its scope as the problem of population displacement spread around the world. This legal concept was expanded by the UN Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugee. The 1967 Protocol removed the geographical and temporal restrictions from the Convention. 

The Convention Governing the Specific Aspects of Refugee Problems in Africa expanded the 1951 definition, which the Organization of African Unity adopted in 1969:

“Every person who, owing to external aggression, occupation, foreign domination or events seriously disturbing public order in either part or the whole of his country of origin or nationality, is compelled to leave his place of habitual residence in order to seek refuge in another place outside his country of origin or nationality” [5]

As of 2011, the UNHCR itself, in addition to the 1951 definition, recognizes refugees as persons: “who are outside their country of nationality or habitual residence and unable to return there owing to serious and indiscriminate threats to life, physical integrity or freedom resulting from generalized violence or events seriously disturbing public order.” [6]

According to the above-mentioned definition, a refugee is someone who has been forced to flee his or her country to a foreign country or power to escape from danger, persecution, human rights violations, and aggression both internally and externally, war or violence. A refugee has a well-founded fear of persecution for reasons of race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a particular social group. They are most likely unable to return home or are afraid to do so. War and ethnic, tribal and religious violence are the leading causes of refugees fleeing their home countries.

The causes of such displacement are diverse. Most of history’s refugees have been the direct or indirect product of armed conflict. The test for armed conflict was set out by the Appeals Chamber in the Tadic jurisdiction:

“An armed conflict exists whenever there is resort to armed force between states or protracted armed violence between States or protracted armed violence between governmental authorities and organized armed groups or between such groups within a state”[7]

Currently, the largest group of refugees in the world is the ones fleeing civil conflict in Syria, which has been raging since 2011 and has killed 400,000 Syrians and displaced 6.3 million internally. Another 5 million have left the country entirely. But before Syria, refugees fled wars in Iraq and Afghanistan in droves in the early 1980s, 90s and 2000s. Afghanistan, notably, had the largest number of refugees of any country in the world for more than two decades between 1981 and 2013, before being overtaken by Syria. Yemen is in the grip of one of the worst humanitarian catastrophes in the world – 3 million people have been forced to flee their homes because of increased violence in the country and more than 22 million vulnerable Yemenis are in immediate need of humanitarian assistance. If this continues, the economic famine will break out soon in Yemen.

The most common reason people become refugee is persecution, which can take on many forms: religious, national, social, racial, or political. The 1951 Convention identified it as one of the root causes of the refugee flows. Persecution usually takes place in the context of fundamental political dispute over who will control the state, how the society organizes itself, and who commands the power, privileges, patronage and perks that go with political control.

The Rohingya people have been described as amongst the world’s least wanted and one of the world’s most persecuted minorities. The UN’s Independent International Fact-Finding Mission on Myanmar concludes, “that gross human rights violations and serious violations of international humanitarian law have been committed since 2011 and that many of these violations undoubtedly amount to the gravest crimes under international law”.

Following the coordinated attacks on police camps by the so called ARSA on 25 August 2017, the Myanmar Government prompted a security crackdown by the military. The violence resulted in mass movements across the border from 25 August 2017. Between 25 August and early December 2017, over 600,000 of the Rohingya population arrived in Cox’s Bazar.[8]

It is estimated that 20 million people in Somalia, South Sudan, Nigeria, and Yemen are facing extreme drought and many of these individuals are becoming refugees, forced from their homelands in search of stable food sources. There are about 17 million displaced persons across the African continent, according to the reports of the Guardian reports and only a small number of them are reaching the shores of Europe. Nevertheless, economic deprivation interacts with other circumstances to heighten instability and aggravate conflicts.

In recent years, the concept of “environmental refugees” has gained new importance as global climate change and desertification have threatened the livelihoods of millions. In some cases, the cause is a natural disaster, while in other cases the catastrophe is caused by humans. “Environmental refugee”, a term coined by Essam El-Hinnawi,[9] refers to “people who have been forced to leave their traditional habitat, temporarily or permanently, because of a marked environmental disruption (natural and/or triggered by people) that jeopardizes their existence and/or seriously affects the quality of their life”[10]

The other cause of refugee crisis around the world is political legacy .Currently there are over 25 million forcibly displaced persons (refugees and IDPs) throughout the Middle East and North Africa, particularly in Iraq, Kurdistan, Libya, Palestine, Syria, Turkey and Yemen. Conflicts between ethnic groups have proliferated in recent years. Armenia and Azerbaijan, Bhutan, Myanmar, Ethiopia, Iraq, Sri Lanka is in of list of examples. Very few modern states are ethnically homogenous.[11]

All refugees have suffered unimaginable loss – whether displaced in their country or seeking safety overseas. It is utterly heartbreaking to see the people leaving with a little more than the clothes on their back, leaving behind homes, possessions, jobs and loved ones .Before being forced to flee, refugees may experience imprisonment, torture, loss of property, malnutrition, physical assault, extreme fear, rape and loss of livelihood.

The flight can last days or years. During the flight, refugees are frequently separated from family members, robbed, forced to inflict pain or kill, witness torture or killing, and/or lose close family members or friends and endure extremely harsh environmental conditions. This assault, gang rape and torture inflicted upon the fleeing persons create both physical and psychological injury. A glaring example is the thousands of Rohingya Muslims who have been forced to watch burning of lifeless bodies, murders, gang rapes etc. Mental health workers say that refugees are suffering from flashbacks of violent, traumatic events, anxiety, agitation, acute stress, recurring nightmares, inability to sleep, eat or even speak, and in more severe cases, being unable to look after themselves or their families. Their normal lives become paralysed and their right to life becomes meaningless.

The communities that welcome them are often struggling to survive themselves. In some circumstances, the social security, law and order of the hosting country go beyond control and this negatively impacts its socio-economic condition. The world community is segregated and into conflict conserving their interests. Constant calls from humanitarian organizations and powerful countries to put an end to the violence, suffering, and devastation of refugee people go unnoticed.

When refugees resettle to a host country, which is most often in a place that is not their choice, they must adapt to the conditions under uncertain circumstances and with uncertain futures.  Re-establishing a home and identity, while trying to juggle the tasks of daily life, is yet another significant challenge that they must undertake[12],[13],[14].  Pre- and post-migration stress may predict specific kinds of symptoms and distress in both children and adults. This information is important since it is during the period of resettlement where stress is high and the refugees may be reminded of other traumatic events of their lives. The resettlement agencies and health care workers might start to reverse the effects of trauma across the lifespan of the refugees by providing culturally sensitive care that gives the refugees support. 

The refugee crisis today is a grim reminder of the inability of international human rights organizations, democratic nations, and humanitarian aid agencies to prevent the persecution, violence, and abuse of people. But this should not continue for an uncertain period. The world community should come forward to uphold the human status of an individual so that he can live with dignity in his native country, enjoying all rights and privileges and prevent him from being forcefully displaced.


Md. Manir Alam

Student of Law at Jagannath University and member of NILS JnU Chapter


1. UNHCR-United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

2. UNHCR and UN Guiding Principle on Internal Displaced Person.


4. Article 1.A.2 ;Convention Relating to the Refugee Status,1951

5. Assembly of Heads of State and Government (Sixth Ordinary Session) (September 1969). “OAU convention governing the specific aspects of refugee problems in Africa”

6.Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) 2011, p. 19

7.ICTY, The Prosecutor v. Dusko Tadić, IT-94-1-AR72, Appeals Chamber, Decision, 2 October 1995;

8. ISCG-Inter Sector Co-ordination Group  03/12/2017

9. Essam El-Hinnawi is a writer of the books named Environmental Refugees, Published byUnited Nations   Environment Programme, 31 Dec 1985 Published in Hertfordshire, United Kingdom

10. LISER.eu-Luxembourg Institute of Socio-Economic Research: LISER.

11. International Law on Refugees, Migrants and Stateless Persons, A.B.M Imdadul Hoque Khan, University Publications, Page 147

12. Beiser M. Strangers at the Gate. The Boat People’s First Ten Years in Canada. Toronto: University of Toronto Press; 1999.

13 Silove D, Sinnerbrink I, Field A, Manicavasagar V, Steel Z. Anxiety, depression and PTSD in asylum-seekers: assocations with pre-migration trauma and post-migration stressors. Br J Psychiatry. 1997; 170: 351-7.

14.Westermeyer J, Vang TF, Neider J. Migration and mental health among Hmong refugees. Association of pre- and postmigration factors with self-rating scales. Journal of Nervous & Mental Disease. 1983; 171(2): 92-6.



3 thoughts on “Being a Refugee is a Circumstance, Not a Choice

  1. Thanks brother.
    I am totally agree with your opinion that," People often speak about human rights but it turns meaningless when we see the number of refugees increasing at an alarming rate."

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