The Definition and Meaning of Refugees and Displaced Persons


American Red Cross office in Poland, World War I era, Bruce M. Mohler papers

The website of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees defines a refugee as “someone who has been forced to flee his or her country because of persecution, war, or violence. A refugee has a well-founded fear of persecution for reasons of race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a particular social group. Most likely, they cannot return home or are afraid to do so.” Although in this collection we examine one modern group of refugees, they have also been a part of human history and warfare in every age. The UN’s current definition of “refugee” is extremely close to the original legal definition set forth by the UNHCR in July 1951, after seven months of discussion and wrangling. Both definitions focus on the danger and fear of persecution, and the refugee’s inability to return to his home country because of that persecution.[1] It is important to precisely define who is and who is not a refugee, as refugees qualify for special protection under the 1951 Geneva Convention. Most important, perhaps, among the special rights and protections guaranteed by the Convention is the principal of non-refoulement. Non-refoulement establishes “that no one shall expel or return (“refouler”) a refugee against his or her will, in any manner whatsoever, to a territory where he or she fears threats to life or freedom.” Those guilty of war crimes or crimes against humanity, however, did not qualify for this protection.[2]  

The UNHCR website also makes a distinction between refugees, who cross international borders seeking protection, and Internally Displaced Persons, or IDPs, who have fled their homes and communities for the reasons mentioned above, but have not left their own countries. There were many IDPs in the immediate aftermath of World War II, particularly in France, where the Nazis had moved many people from one part of the country to another for forced labor, and in Germany, where many had fled from the Russian advance. In France, however, many of these IDPs simply found their own way home in a matter of days or weeks, with little assistance from the Allies other than a quick lift on a truck or train. The refugees and displaced persons spoken of in these documents are not, for the most part, this group, but are displaced persons in the proper sense of the term, who remained unable to return home in the years following World War II.

The UNHCR, whose easily-recognizable blue-and-white logo can be seen in areas of warfare and mass displacement throughout the world, can trace its organizational ancestry to the World War II era. Immediately after the war’s end, the US and Allied armies took up the task of caring for the millions of refugees who drifted around Europe. They fed and clothed them, and saw to the critical medical needs of groups like concentration camp survivors, who were often so weakened from starvation that they were unable to eat normal food. The United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA) was formed in 1943, and its work for refugees overlapped with that of the Allied forces. Notably, the UNRRA came into being before the United Nations, the international organization we know today, was officially formed in 1945. Both organizations were inspired by ideals of universal human rights and international cooperation. As the Allies sought to develop less piecemeal solutions to the refugee crisis, they consolidated the refugees into huge camps, such as Wildflecken in Germany, and the UNRRA took over more responsibility from the military. The International Refugee Organization, another UN entity which met in Geneva, succeeded the UNRRA in 1946, before, finally, the IRO was dissolved in 1952 and succeeded by our present United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.


Somali Refugee.jpg

Somali refugees, a small group from among thousands like them, gather at a camp in Dadaab, Kenya. Photo courtesy of Catholic Relief Services/ Laura Sheahen.

UNRRA, the IRO, and the UNHCR were all centered around the idea that the refugee, as long as he or she remained without a permanent home, was “an orphan without a guardian” and that “an impartial international agency is undoubtedly needed to supply this guardianship.”[3] Because refugees and displaced persons had been separated from the natural supports of the community and nation, leaving them vulnerable, the United Nations’ various organizations stepped in to make sure that these refugees would not be without an advocate. In another way, the US bishops also demonstrated this sense of duty towards their fellow men in their actions and writings on behalf of European refugees during the World War II era. We will see, in these documents, many statements which reflect the idea that we have a responsibility for the needs of others. As the minutes of a 1951 meeting of the Catholic Resettlement Council note, “It is necessary to create a new mentality that realizes the earth was made for all people and to bring people and resources together.”[4] The US bishops’ humanitarian spirit, however, was also given a further dimension by their Catholic faith, as we can see from the following quote:

 “War Relief Services-National Catholic Welfare Conference is a profession of faith in the sublime doctrine of the Mystical Body of Christ—Who is the Mystical Vine of which we are the branches. It is a profession of faith in a doctrine that that the fruit of the Incarnation and the Redemption is the Brotherhood of Man under the Fatherhood of God; that Faith without works is dead; that we are our brother’s keeper and have a personal responsibility before God for the welfare of that Brother-in-Christ who embraces men of all races, creeds, and nationalities.”[5]

[1]David J. Whittaker, Asylum Seekers and Refugees in the Contemporary World (London and New York: Routledge, 2006), 2.

 [2]UNHCR website, “Convention and Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees”,, accessed August 1, 2012, 5-6.

[3]Malcolm J. Proudfoot, European Refugees 1939-52: A Study in Forced Population Movement (London: Faber and Faber Ltd., 1957), 434.

[4]Minutes of a Joint Meeting of the National Catholic Resettlement Council and the National Catholic Rural Life Conference in Boston, Massachusetts, October 24, 1951. NCWC International Affairs, Box 37, Folder 2.

 [5]War Relief Services-NCWC, “A Story of Relief around the World” (brochure), quoted in Rev. Joseph M. McMahon, The Program of War Relief Services-NCWC for the Relief and Resettlement of Displaced Persons with Particular Reference to West Germany (MA Dissertation, Catholic University of America, 1952), vi.