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Who are Refugees?

Matthew J. Lister

University of Pennsylvania - Legal Studies Department

August 13, 2012

Law and Philosophy: Volume 32, Issue 5 (2013), Page 645-671
U Denver Legal Studies Research Paper No. 12-40

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.

Number of Pages in PDF File: 26

Keywords: refugees, immigration, UNHCR, human rights, global justice, refugee protection, persecution

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Date posted: August 13, 2012 ; Last revised: September 4, 2013

Suggested Citation

Lister, Matthew J., Who are Refugees? (August 13, 2012). Law and Philosophy: Volume 32, Issue 5 (2013), Page 645-671; U Denver Legal Studies Research Paper No. 12-40. Available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=2128409

Contact Information

Matthew J. Lister (Contact Author)
University of Pennsylvania - Legal Studies Department ( email )
3730 Walnut Street
Suite 600
Philadelphia, PA 19104-6365
United States
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