Celebrated each year on 20 June, World Refugee Day was established in 2001 to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees. Signed by 149 states, the convention was the first to legally define a refugee as: “Someone who is unable or unwilling to return to their country of origin owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion.” Today, a refugee can also be someone who is displaced because of natural disasters, such as earthquakes, volcanoes and tsunamis.


There are an estimated 281 million migrants in the world, of which one hundred million are refugees. ‘Migrants’ is an umbrella term referring to people who leave their homes for all kinds of reasons: social, economic, for employment or study, or to join family. Although migrants are not all refugees, this does not mean that they leave home out of choice: over four thousand people die every year trying to reach a new country. People who want the legal protection to stay in another country are called ‘asylum seekers’. This means that they have begun the legal process to become a refugee. 


Today, major refugee crises are occurring in Syria and Ukraine, as well as in Afghanistan and South Sudan. However, some people see the number of migrants as too high for the countries they arrive in to to handle. Many travel illegally and are met with strict immigration controls. In the UK, the government is trying to pass a new law to stop small boats crossing the English Channel. The controversial bill says that those who arrive in the UK without permission will have their asylum claims dismissed, whatever their circumstances. They will then be deported, possibly to a third country such as Rwanda. The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) is “profoundly concerned” by the bill, which is a “clear breach of the refugee convention”.

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No one wants to leave home. World Refugee Day is an occasion to build empathy and understanding and to recognise the resilience of those who have to regardless of the status they have in the country they moved to. The day is marked by a variety of events and activities that amplify the voices and experiences of refugees and displaced people. It brings them together with government officials, host communities, companies, celebrities and the general public.