According to the 1951 UN Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees a refugee is someone who has left his or her country of origin because of a well-founded fear of persecution for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) is mandated to lead and co-ordinate international action to protect refugees and resolve refugee problems worldwide. Its primary purpose is to safeguard the rights and well-being of refugees. At the beginning of 2011, there were 10.5 million refugees under UNHCR’s responsibility, plus an additional 4.8 million Palestinian refugees. There are an additional 27.5 million people worldwide who have been “internally displaced” (have not left their country’s borders) due to conflict.
Of the 10.5 million, there were almost 3.1 million Afghan refugees, or 27 per cent of the global refugee population. Iraqis were the second largest group, with 2.3 million having sought refuge mainly in neighboring countries. Afghan and Iraqi refugees account for almost half of all refugees under UNHCR’s responsibility worldwide, followed by Colombians (552,000), Sudan (523,000), Somalia (457,000), Burundi (376,000), and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (370,000).
The goal of the UNHCR is to seek durable solutions for refugees worldwide. These solutions can take three different forms: (i) voluntary repatriation to the home country; (ii) resettlement in another country; or (iii) finding appropriate permanent integration mechanisms in the country of asylum. Each year, less than 1 per cent of the world’s refugees directly benefit from resettlement.
IRIS also assists asylees—persons who are also fleeing persecution but who are already within the borders of the U.S. when they request permission to stay.