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Who are Refugees?


Hundreds of millions of people around the world are unable to meet their needs on their own, and do not receive adequate protection or support from their home states. These people, if they are to be provided for, need assistance from the international community. If we are to meet our duties to these people, we must have ways of knowing who should be eligible for different forms of relief. One prominent proposal from scholars and activists has been to classify all who are unable to meet their basic needs on their own as ‘refugees’, and to extend to them the sorts of protections established under the United Nations Refugee Convention. Such an approach would expand the traditional refugee definition significantly. Unlike most academic commentators discussing this issue, I reject calls for an expanded refugee definition, and instead defend the core elements of the definition set out in the 1967 Protocol to the United Nations Refugee Convention. Using the tools of moral and political philosophy, I explain in this article how the group picked out by this definition has particular characteristics that make refugee protection distinctly appropriate for it. While many people in need of assistance can be helped ‘in place’, in their home countries, or by providing a form of temporary protected status to them, this is not so, I show, of convention refugees. The group picked out by the UN refugee definition is a normatively distinct group to whom we owe particular duties, duties we can only meet by granting them refuge in a safe country. Additionally, there are further practical reasons why a broader refugee definition may lead to problems. Finally, I argue that rejecting the call for a broader definition of refugees will better help us meet our duties to those in need than would an expanded definition.

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Correspondence to Matthew Lister*.

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Visiting Assistant Professor, University of Denver, Sturm College of Law; PhD, Philosophy, University of Pennsylvania, 2009; JD, Penn Law, 2006. Earlier versions of this paper we presented at a panel at the AALS Annual Meeting in New York City, ‘New Voices on Human Rights’, to the Philosophy Departments at Washington & Less University, Binghamton University, and San Francisco State University, to faculty workshops at Penn Law, Villanova University School of Law, and the University of Georgia School of Law, and at the ‘Emerging Immigration Law Scholars’ conference at American University, Washington College of Law. My thanks to the organizers, and to the participants, at those events for useful comments. I particularly want to thank Howard Chang, Jaya Ramji-Nogalas, Samuel Freeman, Andrew Koppleman, Colin Grey, Anita Silvers, Kok-Chor Tan, Shelley Wilcox, Tess Wilkinson-Ryan, Mark Wojcik, Stephen Perry, Orin Kerr, Michael Blake, Michele Pistone, Randy Beck, Tim Meyer, and Todd Aagaard for their helpful comments and discussion, and Joseph Carens for sharing some unpublished work with me, as well as for setting the course for normative discussion of immigration law and policy.

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Lister*, M. Who are Refugees?. Law and Philos 32, 645–671 (2013).

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  • Natural Disaster
  • Habitual Residence
  • Refugee Problem
  • Refugee Claim
  • Severe Poverty