Escape from Violence: Conflict and the Refugee Crisis in the Developing World

By Aristide R. Zolberg; Astri Suhrke et al. | Go to book overview

Chapter 1
Who Is a Refugee?

Why Definitions Matter

The definitional problem with which we start is no mere academic exercise but has a bearing on matters of life and death. Although the term refugee has deep historical roots, its significance as a legal and administrative category has been vastly enhanced in our own times. The point can be brought home by considering the words that Emma Lazarus used in her poem a century ago:

Give me your tired, your poor,
your huddled masses yearning to breathe free
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. . . .

Which, among the arrivals thus greeted, were "real" refugees? The need for precise categories did not arise under conditions of unlimited immigration, and so the distinction was not made explicit. However, given the growing numbers, restrictive immigration policies, and limited availability of aid, criteria must be established for distinguishing a set of persons deserving priority with respect to asylum and assistance. Refugee has become a category on whose basis international organizations and individual states engage in a process of worldwide triage. Refugee status is a privilege or entitlement, giving those who qualify access to certain scarce resources or services outside their own country, such as admission into another country ahead of a long line of claimants, legal protection abroad, and often some material assistance from private or public agencies.

Confusion arises from the fact that refugee has acquired a diffuse meaning in ordinary parlance and a much more precise one in legal and administrative jargon. Jacques Vernant observed as far back as 1953 that "in every-day speech a refugee is someone who has been compelled to abandon his home." Such refugees include victims of an earthquake or a flood, as well as of war or persecution. More generally, the emphasis has been on victimization by events "for which, at least as an individual, he cannot be held responsible." 1 This is still the emphasis today, as in press references to the victims of

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