What do we really mean when we call someone a refugee?

Before I get into what a refugee really is, let's start with a quick grammar lesson (you can roll your eyes--after all, I can't see you). We have a lot of words that end with the suffix "ee" in the English language. Take a quick glance at the ones below:

  • Detainee
  • Parolee
  • Nominee
  • Appointee
  • Trainee
  • Honoree

Notice anything about these terms? In many cases, this suffix indicates something being done to or for another person. Someone is detained by someone else. Someone is granted parole. Someone is given honors by an outside party. Note my use of the passive voice.

It's important that we remember this suffix when we look at the two words below:

  • asylee
  • refugee

Someone else must grant asylum to the asylee. Someone else must provide refuge to the refugee. What many people don't realize is that this is not something refugees or asylees can provide for themselves--if they could, why would they be fleeing their homelands? In other words, a refugee is someone who seeks protection, because, quite simply, they are unable to find protection anywhere else and through any other means.

It's important to remember this when we think about refugees crossing our borders, whether it's in Europe or in the U.S. The word "refugee" has been used as a blanket term for both illegal and perfectly legal border crossings, but that does not mean refugees are trying to cheat the system or take things from us without warrant.

Sometimes, refugees and asylees are lumped with a larger group called migrants. It's a bit hard to keep track of when you aren't regularly in contact with these populations. Here's a quick way to remember it:

Migrant: Notice how it doesn't end in "ee"? This person is not necessarily seeking legal permanent residency or asylum status (although it can widely vary). Migrants iare simply people who--ready for it?--migrate. They are moving across borders for a variety of reasons, whether those reasons are to find work, reunite with family, or escape poor working and living conditions.

Refugee: According to the legal definition, a refugee is "an individual who is outside his or her country of nationality or habitual residence who is unable or unwilling to return due to a well-founded fear of persecution based on his or her race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or membership in a particular social group" (International Justice Resource Center, http://www.ijrcenter.org/refugee-law/).

A refugee seeks refuge while still outside of the country where they plan to resettle (or an agency plans to resettle them--typically, the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, or UNHCR, oversees this process).

Asylee: An asylum-seeker is fleeing for similar reasons to a refugee, but the key difference is that he or she seeks this status once already inside the country where the person wishes to be resettled. That's why many refugees in Europe now are trying to cross through several countries before declaring asylum to ensure that they get to a nation that will 1) grant them asylum in the first place, since not all countries do and 2) grant them asylum in a timely fashion, especially for those who are hoping to be reunited with their families.

Last but not least, you may occasionally hear about internally and externally displaced persons (IDPs and EDPs). EDPs expect to return to their country of origin but may be unable to do so because of persecution or other limiting factors. For example, after the Haiti earthquake in 2010, many Haitians in the U.S. were granted refugee status as EDPs who could not return to their home country following the natural disaster. IDPs are still within the borders of their country of origin, but cannot return home. Many times, IDPs eventually become refugees.

Why does all of this matter?

Because the next time someone says that refugees are here illegally, that they are terrorists, or that they are here without any justification, you will be equipped with knowledge of what a refugee really is, and that we must, as the word's suffix implies, bestow protection upon them rather than trying to strip away their dignity and worthiness of our help.