Millions on the move: the refugee: a staggering world problem
The Oxford English Dictionary defines a refugee as: "One who, owing to religious persecution or political troubles, seeks refuge in a foreign country", and adds that the word was first applied to the French Huguenots who came to England after the revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685. Two years later, John Evelyn in his Diary spoke of the "poor and religious refugees who escaped out of Prance in the cruel persecution.
The problem therefore has a long history. Since the 17th century the world has seen successive waves of people driven from their countries through religious or political persecution. It is still with us today.
Between the two World Wars the classic definition of a refugee was a person who "had sought refuge in a territory other than that in which he was formerly resident as a result of political events which rendered his continued residence in his former territory impossible or intolerable." But the Second World War and post-war political developments rapidly out-dated this description and made a new, more topical definition necessary.
In July 1951 the Convention Relating to the Status of the Refugee was adopted at a conference attended by 28 States. This Convention which is the most comprehensive codification of the rights of refugees so far attempted on an international level, laid down that the "status of refugee" would apply to a person who "owing to 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 or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country" (and who for similar reasons)... "is unwilling to return to it."
But behind all this legal phraseology looms the tragic human problem of the men, women and children who are today without roots and without work. Whatever the definition applied, it is important to remember that the refugee is first and foremost a human being. As Dr. G.J. van Heuven Goedhart, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, has said: "We should never fail to see him behind our documents, papers and discussions. We should always be aware of him as a man who, in his little bundle with which he crosses the ' border, carries a -tremendously important decision the decision to leave everything which was dear to him and walk into an unknown Tuture with a deep confidence in freedom, and in the reception which he will have in the free world. The refugees are looking for shelter, work and the chance to live decently. They are valuable, . courageous and industrious human beings."
The problem today is world-wide. There are certainly no less than 30 million, and there may be as many as 40 million refugees in the world. The solution of this human tragedy is a task of staggering magnitude.
At this time, when the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees has just received the Nobel Peace Prize for its work, the Unesco Courier has made an assessment of the refugee problem as it stands in 1956.