According to the legal definition of being a refugee, a refugee is someone who "owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality, and is unable to, or owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country."

For the vast majority of Syrians fleeing from Syria this definition doesn't hold: they fled not because of persecution of a particular group but because of the civil war.

To make it clear: I'm speaking here about definitions. I do not suggest that people fleeing from their country because of war should have less protection than people fleeing because of persecution.

Is there a legal term for those who flee because of war and not persecution?

  • 8
    That may be a legal definition, but if you Google the word, the definition comes up as "a person who has been forced to leave their country in order to escape war, persecution, or natural disaster." Consider that your definition may not be the one the decision-makers are using. Commented Sep 1, 2015 at 11:21
  • 4
    it would be good to link where your legal definition comes from
    – Sir Sy
    Commented Sep 3, 2015 at 9:11
  • That sounds like the definition of asylum seeker, not refugee. Commented Apr 24, 2019 at 21:37

3 Answers 3


The European Union has created something called “subsidiary protection” for people in this situation. As far as I know, that's specific to the EU and isn't used elsewhere or in international law generally.

Also, Syrians might not exactly fit the definition under a strict reading of the Convention relating to the Status of Refugees (where your definition comes from) but the UNHCR does manage camps in, e.g., Jordan so that definition simply does not fully reflect current practice.

More recent treaties extended the definition, e.g. the 1967 OUA Convention:

The term “refugee” shall also apply to every person who, owing to external aggression, occupation, foreign domination or events seriously disturbing public order in either part or the whole of his country of origin or nationality, is compelled to leave his place of habitual residence in order to seek refuge in another place outside his country of origin or nationality.

Incidentally, there is an ongoing debate in several European countries regarding the correct term to use to describe the people currently fleeing to Europe, “migrants” or “asylum seekers” are other possibilities. I just noticed the UNHCR also published something about this and very much includes “people fleeing armed conflicts” as part of their definition of refugees.

  • 1
    The '67 OUA Convention answers the question. Thanks. Commented Sep 1, 2015 at 13:42
  • OUA only seems to apply in Africa en.wikipedia.org/wiki/… Commented Apr 24, 2019 at 2:10
  • The UNCHR also has explicit definition now (apparently since 2011) that extends their mandate along OUA/Cartagena lines. Commented Apr 24, 2019 at 4:03
  • @Fizz That's an example, point is that "refugee" has a broader definition in practice even in the West.
    – Relaxed
    Commented Apr 26, 2019 at 19:05

There is indeed an ideological divide on the legal definition of refugee between the developed and less developed countries. The fact that Africa and Latin America have adopted a broader definition, which is yet to be endorsed by the "West" is not an accident.

The struggle against colonialism and the wars of liberation, especially in Africa, exposed the limitations of this approach, and in 1969 the Organization of African Unity adopted an additional, broader definition more consistent with social and political reality on the continent. This stepped beyond the individual’s well-founded fear of persecution to encompass refuge from external aggression, occupation, foreign domination, or events seriously disturbing public order. A similar approach, again reflecting regional circumstances, was adopted for Central America in the 1984 Cartagena Declaration, notably taking account also of ‘generalized violence’ and ‘massive violation of human rights’.

These specific regional approaches helped to keep the principles and practice of refugee protection more or less in touch with the actual dimensions of population displacements during the 1970s and 1980s, even if States remained reluctant to recognize an individual right to be granted asylum.

Several Western commentators describe the 1951 definition of refugee as being too narrow, owing to its ideological basis in the Cold War. On the other hand it turned out to be a convenient way to reject post-Soviet-era asylum seekers.

although the Convention stipulates that refuge is granted to all those who have left their country of origin, ‘owing to the wellfounded fear of persecution’, the Convention does not actually clarify what ‘persecution’ is; there is no definition within the Convention or within the UNHCR Handbook on Procedures and Criteria for Determining Refugee Status (1979). The term ‘persecution’ is fairly problematic. Daniel Wilsher puts it pertinently when he writes,

it may seem astonishing that, even fifty years and thousands of judicial decisions after its signature, the Refugee Convention continues to produce novel interpretations of central concepts such as the meaning of persecution and protection (2003, p.106)

At the time of drafting, little thought was actually paid to the various forms that ‘persecution’ could take, particularly gender-based persecution or persecution by non-state actors (UNHCR 2001, p.12). As a result, there have been wildly differing and increasingly restrictive interpretations of ‘persecution’ (UNHCR 2001, p.14). Moreover, with the collapse of communism, ‘globalisation superseded the old polarisation, with mass migration and numerous regional conflicts replacing superpower stand-offs’ (Friedman and Klein 2008, p.57). The agents of ‘persecution’ are no longer necessarily state actors, but non-state actors, or even sub-state actors, rebels and militia. By following the 1951 Convention route to refuge, vast numbers of people are excluded from attaining refuge as they fail to comply with the UNHCR definition of what constitutes a refugee. Those excluded due to lack of the ‘persecution’ label, are people caught in the crossfire of civil war or generalized violence, starving people, people without economic resources to subsist, people forced to flee their countries due to environmental catastrophe, people recruited to rebel militia, and battered women unable to attain police protection (Price 2006, p.417)

In strict 1946 UN terms, the refugees from OUA/Cartagena are (externally) "displaced persons". The term "externally displaced persons" is sometimes in UN resolutions from the 1990s. A US government page from 2009 still uses this terminology:

Displaced Person: an individual who has been forced or obliged to flee or leave his or her home temporarily and who expect to return eventually.

Internally displaced persons (IDPs) have relocated within their country, while externally displaced persons have crossed an international border. Depending upon their ability to return, and whether they are subject to persecution in their home country, externally displaced persons may be entitled to recognition as refugees under UNHCR's -mandate.

Sometimes "externally displaced victims" is/was used instead but not in truly official documents, as far as I can tell. In contrast "internally displaced persons" (IDP) is common as it is clearly distinct from refugees (under either legal definition); UNHCR also uses the IDP term currently (and frequently).

However, as Wikipedia notes:

As of 2011, the UNHCR itself, in addition to the 1951 definition, recognizes persons as refugees:

"who are outside their country of nationality or habitual residence and unable to return there owing to serious and indiscriminate threats to life, physical integrity or freedom resulting from generalized violence or events seriously disturbing public order."[9]

Verified from the source cited:

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I'm not sure how this (overt) extension of mandate came about.

But it's clearly pretty new, because a 2006 UNHCR research paper didn't mention it, but did detail the terminological morass at the time:

At first glance, it appears that international law has little to say about the relatively amorphous concept of complementary protection. Although there is longstanding State practice of protecting extra-Convention refugees, encompassed by such terms as ‘de facto refugees’, ‘B status refugees’, ‘OAU and Cartagena-type refugees’ and ‘humanitarian refugees’, the term ‘complementary protection’ appears in no international treaty and has no singular connotation in State practice. An EXCOM Conclusion adopted in October 2005 specifically refers to ‘complementary protection’, but does not define it. The first binding, supranational instrument on complementary protection was concluded in April 2004 by the European Union, but it adopts the term ‘subsidiary protection’ instead.

(EXCOM here is the UNHCR's governing Executive Committee.)

  • Easy for African and Latin American countries to extend the definition of refugees when they barely accept any in their own countries... Commented Apr 24, 2019 at 15:51
  • This also has bearing on the migrant caravans from Central America. Many of the people in them are fleeing the endemic violence of drug gangs. While this is not persecution due to membership of a group or belief, it certainly qualifies as "generalized violence or events seriously disturbing public order". Commented Apr 25, 2019 at 8:56
  • @PaulJohnson: The closest thing to subsidiarity protection in the US is probably TPS. But the Trump administration has not even redesignated Syria in that respect, so there's an obvious conclusion there... Commented Apr 25, 2019 at 9:12
  • @JonathanReez That's completely untrue. In fact, Uganda is among the world's top refugee-hosting countries for example. Where have you heard this?
    – Relaxed
    Commented Apr 26, 2019 at 19:01
  • @Relaxed I guess I might be misinformed. But did Uganda in particular support changing the definition? Commented Apr 26, 2019 at 19:02

Most full-scale civil wars, and I think Syria's is no exception, create "well-founded fear of being persecuted for [...] political opinion"

To put it simply, no matter what you think the government of Syria should look like going forward, that's absolutely unacceptable to at least one armed group that's killing people at some scale in Syria.

Many civil wars also create issues for races, religions and social groups.

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