Definition of a Refugee

Former chief of the Bureau of Refugee Services Wayne Johnson defines the term 'refugee.'


Well, the legal definition is someone who is unable or unwilling to avail themselves to the protection of their government because of reasonable fear of persecution based on race, religion, ethnicity, political belief or membership in a certain strata of society. And so it goes back to reasonable fear of persecution and every person who has an interview with the U.S. government to try to gain refugee status they have to either under the questioning of the U.S. officer or by volunteering information they have to articulate this reasonable fear of persecution. Most refugees don't get on the boat, so to speak, understanding they have to successfully articulate a reasonable fear of persecution. And when I worked in Thailand in processing Lao refugees it was very clear that, and I suspect it's the same for most people who are relatively unsophisticated and just know that they couldn't stay where they were, when asked, "Well why did you leave?" "Well, I was hungry and I had nothing to eat." Now, is that reasonable fear of persecution? No, of course not. But if you ask the second question, "Well, why were you hungry?" "Well, because the government took all of our land and put it in a commune and each got according to each need, each person's need. And so no matter how much I worked I didn't get enough rice, wheat, corn, whatever you're talking about, Columbia or whatever the crop is, we didn't have enough to feed my family." Well, now is that persecution? Well, it might not be yet. "Well, so everybody in that village was poor and everybody was starving like you?" "Well, no, because the people who had been the friends of the Communists, they got extra rations but my father was a military officer, has been sent away to a political prison and we don't get the same ration as everybody else gets." Well, now is that reasonable fear of persecution based on, well yeah it is. But it may not be right on the surface until you start to drill down into all of this.

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