Accessibility links


What Determines Who is Really a Refugee?

  • Margaret Besheer

As thousands of children crowd U.S. detention centers, officials struggle to deal with the situation.

More than 21,000 unaccompanied children arrived last year from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, according to a recent U.N. report.

Nearly 19,000 came from Mexico.

This year the numbers only increased, and the deluge has given rise to a debate that largely depends on whether they can be classified as refugees.

But what determines who is a refugee?

"The children that are fleeing violence and who would be in harm's way if they returned, those are children who would likely qualify for protection here in the United States," said Anna Greene of the International Rescue Committee. "But not all would."

Accoording to Greene, those seeking to escape poverty are often referred to as "economic migrants."

Unlike refugees, they leave their homes by choice. If someone seeking asylum in the United States is determined not to be a refugee, then he or she can be deported.

Jana Mason of the U.N. Refugee Agency says there are specific justifications for granting refugee satus.

"There are five grounds, and it has to be linked to persecution — race, religion, your ethnic or national background, a political opinion that you hold, or membership in a particular social group," he said.

In extraordinary circumstances the United Nations has classified whole groups of people as refugees, such as those fleeing the war in Syria or conflicts in Africa.

So does a government have a different degree of responsibility to a refugee — especially a child — fleeing poverty than it does to one fleeing war?

Greene of the IRC says no.

“It looks different, but the protection principles are exactly the same. Including that every child who is unaccompanied, regardless of why they may have left, needs certain types of protection that adults don't,” she said.

In the U.S. border case, Mason said it was important that undocumented migrants be given the chance to tell their story and go through the asylum process.

“International law says that if someone could be a refugee, you basically have to give them the benefit of the doubt and not send them back,” said Mason.

The experts said the key to stemming the flow of unaccompanied children and other asylum-seekers from Central America to the U.S. is to address the underlying factors that are causing them to make such a dangerous journey in the first place.