Grade Level: 
6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12
Refugees are people who, through no fault of their own, are forced to leave their homes for fear of persecution because of race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a particular social group. Many people and organizations are working to help them find their way home or help them find a new home and new opportunities for employment and education.

Written by Terri Campbell with some content from an earlier edition by 



According to the 1951 Refugee Convention, a refugee is someone who has been forced to flee his or her country because of a well-founded fear of persecution for reasons of race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a particular social group; a refugee either cannot return home or is afraid to do so. War and ethnic, tribal and religious violence are leading causes of refugees fleeing their countries (UNHCR).


Historic Roots

The earliest examples of refugees goes back to ancient Greece.  Exile was a punishment for various offenses including professional failure committed by an ambassador or a general.  However, whether or not the individual(s) was/were forced to leave, or left on their own accord is ambiguous (Oxford Reference).

The term “refugee” is believed to have first been officially applied to the Huguenots who fled France in the seventeenth century.  Its modern term follows the UN General Assembly’s establishment of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in 1950.  At that time, the UNHCR’s purpose was to guarantee and provide international protection and assistance to those who had become displaced by World War II.  With the signing of the 1967 Bellagio Protocol, this remit for protection was extended beyond Europe to include refugees all over the world (Blackwell Encyclopedia of Sociology). 



In 2003, the number of refugees in the world was estimated at 11.9 million.  Of these, about half are female and about 45 percent are under the age of 17.  More than 7 million have been living in camps and settlements for at least 10 years or more.  As the number of refugees in the world increases, so does the need to help them.  As refugees cross international borders in flight from conflict, persecution, and insecurity in search of permanent residence, they become vulnerable as they are in a foreign jurisdiction where they may have no rights or protections as citizens.

These displaced individuals will continue to need help from other developed nations.  New, more holistic approaches to the study of helping refugees will be needed to build a better of understanding of topics such as the political economy, gender dimensions, and causes of refugee movements as well as the dynamics of mobility and settlement (Blackwell Encyclopedia of Sociology).    


Ties to the Philanthropic Sector

Without the support and aid of nonprofit organizations, circumstances for most refugees would be worse.  They would live without homes, have little to no access to healthcare, education or jobs.  Since 1950, UNHCR has worked to ensure all people have the right to seek asylum and find safe refuge, having fled violence, persecution, war or disaster at home.  For those displaced, they provide emergency assistance in the form of clean drinking water, sanitation, healthcare, shelter, blankets, household supplies and food.  Also, transportation and assistance are arranged for those wanting to return to their homes.  UNHCR also works to provide projects which offer income-generating opportunities (UNHCR).

In 1971, Doctors Without Borders was created on the belief that all people have the right to medical care regardless of gender, race, religion, creed or political affiliation.   Catastrophic events and countries in turmoil which results in people being displaced can overwhelm local health systems.  During the course of one year, the medical professionals from Doctors Without Borders have helped millions of people in crises in 60 different countries (Doctors Without Borders).

UNICEF defends the rights of children in 190 countries and territories.  Refugee children benefit from UNICEF’s ability to provide health and nutrition support.  Also, UNICEF help children who become separated from their families during time of crisis and sudden departure from their home (UNICEF).  


Key Related Ideas

  • Rohingya refugees have been fleeing their homeland of Myanmar to Bangladesh since the late 1970’s.  An estimated 350,000 unregistered Rohingyas are living in southeastern Bangladesh.  In addition, 30,000 are officially recognized as refugees by the Bangladesh government. These refugees are living in camps which are supervised by the UNHCR.  Unregistered Rohingyas lead an inhuman life.  They are mostly unemployed, vulnerable to sickness, random exploitation and abuse. While the UNHCR is mandated to protect refugees worldwide, they have not made significant protests against the poor treatment and injustices committed against the unregistered Rohingyas living outside the camps.  Local Bangladesh citizens do not welcome the Rohingyas because their country is already overcrowded and lacking basic resources.  The influx of Rohingyas adds pressure to the already competitive environment for resources. Their vulnerable position make them easy targets for unscrupulous politicians.  They are treated as illegal immigrants and unwelcomed outsiders (Howard-Hassmann, Walton-Roberts 2015).
  • Syrian refugees are fleeing their country on average of 3,300 individuals per day.  In 2015, over one million migrants reached Europe resulting in the largest mass migration since the end of World War II.  This figure is four times greater than the number of migrants in 2014.  This is mostly caused by Syrian refugees fleeing civil war (Witschel 2017).  The Syrian crisis is putting immense strain on the resources of neighboring countries and the international humanitarian system.  With no prospects of the Syrian civil war ending anytime soon, the displacement of these refugees will be longer than expected.  And, finding a job is difficult.  Work is often low-wage and the competition is fierce.  Thus, Syrian refugees are forced to deplete their personal assets making their current situation direr and leaves them little chance to rebuild their lives and livelihoods if they are able to return to their home country (Zetter, Ruaudel 2014).


Important People Related to the Topic

  • Madeline Albright:  In 1997, Albright was named to the highest government office ever held by a woman:  US Secretary of State.  However, her childhood was filled with turmoil as the result of having to flee her native country, Czechoslovakia, in 1938, just one year after she was born.  Nazi-ruled Germany entered into Czechoslovakia and her Jewish family was forced to leave.  Three of Albright’s grandparents died in Nazi concentration camps during the Holocaust. During the war years, as German armies advanced across Eastern Europe, Albright’s family again fled, this time to England.  After the war ended in 1945, they returned to Czechoslovakia where her father entered the Czech diplomatic service as ambassador to Yugoslavia and Albania.  However, her father was not in harmony with the communist regime that ruled in Czechoslovakia at that time, and the family became refugees again.  In 1949, they immigrated to the United States to Denver, Colorado. Albright attended a private girl’s school in Denver.  She then attended and graduated from Wellesley.  She earned her master’s and doctoral degrees from Columbia University specializing in international relations (Immigration to United States).
  • Albert Einstein:  We have all heard of Albert Einstein and his scientific theories. Yet few of us know of his days as a refugee.  As a German Jew, he was suspended and barred from resuming his professorship at the Prussian Academy of Sciences in Berlin.  Nazis raided his property and burned his books. Forced from his home, Einstein sought refuge in the United States and settled in Princeton, New Jersey.  He and his wife made visa applications for other German Jews and personally vouched for refugees fleeing Nazi rule. He expressed mixed feelings about his life in exile. "I am privileged by fate to live here in Princeton," he wrote to the Belgian Queen, who had befriended him in the early days. "In this small university town the chaotic voices of human strife barely penetrate. I am almost ashamed to be living in such peace while all the rest struggle and suffer" (Rescue).


Related Nonprofit Organizations

  • United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) was created in 1950 to help millions of Europeans after the Second World War who had fled or lost their homes (
  • Doctors without Borders was created in 1971 on the belief that all people have the right to medical care regardless of gender, race, creed or political affiliation, and that the needs of these people outweigh respect for national borders (
  • UNICEF was established in 1947 to improve the lives of children and their families. UNICEF fights for the rights of every child seeking shelter, nutrition, protection from disaster and conflicts, and equality (
  • International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) was established in 1863 to help people worldwide affected by conflict and armed violence and promoting the laws that protect victims of war (



  • Albert Einstein's Legacy.
  • Doctors without Borders.
  • “Exile.”  Oxford Reference.
  • Immigration.
  • Loyal, Steve. "Refugees." Blackwell Encyclopedia of Sociology. Ritzer, George (ed). Blackwell Publishing, 2007.
  • Rhoda E., Howard-Hassmann, Margaret Walton-Roberts. The Human Right to Citizenship: A Slippery Concept.  Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2015.
  • Robinson, Courtland. "Refugee Movements." Blackwell Encyclopedia of Sociology. Ritzer, George (ed). Blackwell Publishing, 2007.
  • UNHCR.
  • UNHCR.
  • Witschel, Michael A. 2017. “Human Rights in Times of Crisis:  Article 3 Prevails – Examining How LGBTQ Asylum Seekers in the European Union are Denied Equal Protection of Law”. American University International Law Review, 32(5), 1047.
  • Zetter, Roger, and Héloïse Ruaudel. 2014. "Development and protection challenges of the Syrian refugee crisis." Revista Migraciones Forzadas no. 47: 6-10. Referencia Latina, EBSCOhost


This paper was developed by students taking a Philanthropic Studies course taught at the Lilly Family School of Philanthropy at Indiana University in 2017. It is offered by Learning To Give and the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University.