What Is a Refugee?

6, 7, 8

In this lesson learners define and discuss terms related to refugees and the common good. They explore the refugee experience and recognize some of the causes and effects of being a refugee. Analyzing The Universal Declaration of Human Rights gives learners the opportunity to explore basic human rights and the concepts of enlighened self-interest and the common good.

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PrintTwo 45-Minute Class Sessions

The learner will:

  • define terms related to refugees and civil society.
  • identify the four economic sectors (government, business, nonprofit, household).
  • identify the different reasons people seek asylum in the world.
  • recognize the causes and the effects of being a refugee.
  • explore the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and relate their own rights and those of others to enlightened self-interest and the common good.
  • refugee: 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.
  • UNHCR: the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees; office established in 1951 to protect the human rights of refugees and provide for their assistance through legal, social, economic aid.
  • asylum: the right to be recognized as a refugee and receive legal protection and material assistance
  • asylum seeker: a person who flees his or her own country and seeks sanctuary in another country
  • economic migrant: someone who leaves his or her country of origin for financial reasons, rather than due to persecution or violation of human rights like refugees
  • immigrant: someone who takes up permanent residence in a country other than his or her original homeland
  • Internally Displaced Person (IDP): someone who has been forced to flee his or her home for the same reason as a refugee, but remains in his or her own country and has not crossed an international border. Unlike refugees, IDPs are not protected by international law or eligible to receive many types of aid. 
  • stateless person: someone who is not a citizen of any country.
  • “Prima Facie” refugees: refugees who are recognized as needing human rights protection on a group basis (for example, a mass movement of refugees across a border during a widespread conflict)
  • resettlement: the process of helping a refugee find a new, permanent home when they cannot safely reside in a country of first asylum or return home  
  • repatriation: the process of returning to one’s home country. The majority of refugees prefer to return home as soon as it is safe to do so after a conflict
  • enlightened self-interest: sacrificing time and resources to the benefit of the whole, which, in turn, benefits self; understanding that what is good for the community is good for me
  • nonprofit sector: Any not-for-profit or tax-exempt organizations collectively that are specifically not associated with any government, government agency, or commercial enterprise

As an exit card, have the students complete the following statement: “The most important right that all humans should have is ___________________________ because ______________________________________________. Without this right, people would feel _________________________________ because they would not have __________________________________________.”



  • Learning to Give briefing papers (search resources):
  • "Enlightened Self-Interest  
  • "Social Contract" 
  • "Common Good"


  1. Anticipatory Set:

    Ask the students to form groups of three to four people.Give each group one of the UNHCR LEGO posters: “What’s Wrong Here?” and “Spot the Refugee.” (Use the poster versions without text so that the students only see the LEGO people and the title of the poster.) Within their small groups, the students should discuss the following questions. Students should write their answers on a sheet of paper.

    1.What does the title imply?What traits on the LEGO characters would indicate he or she is a refugee?

    2.Are there any differences among the various LEGO characters? If so, what are they?

    3.What may be the purpose of this poster?

  2. Reconvene as a class. Have each group present their discussion results to the rest of the class. The teacher should write the results in two separate columns on an overhead sheet – one column should be for the “What’s Wrong Here?” poster and one column should be for the “Spot the Refugee” poster.

  3. Show the students the posters with text. Based on what they have seen and read on the posters, the students should discuss the potential implications of being a refugee. Before the class session ends, have students come up with a definition for what they think a refugee is.

  4. Ask the students if they know what the letters on the posters the letters "UNHCR"stand for. Tell them that the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (The UN Refugee Agency) is an "intergovernmental" organization that supports refugees world-wide. In the United States,the nonprofit organization "USA for UNHCR" has a mission to support the UN Refugee Agency's humanitarian work to protect and assist refugees around the world. It strives to meet the needs of the world's most vulnerable people, building support and awareness in the United States for UNHCR's life-saving relief programs.

  5. To clarify an understanding of the nonprofit sector, distribute Handout Four:"The Four Economic Sectors." Read together and clarify distinctions through discussion. Ask students to cite some examples of the for-profit and nonprofit sectors. Explain to the students that for refugees, the USA fo UNHCR nonprofit organization supports the inter-governmental UN Refugee Agency in addressing issues related to refugees. This is an example of how sectors can work together to address an issue.

  6. Day Two

  7. Give each student a copy of Handout Two: "UNHCR vocabulary sheet: What is a refugee?” Note: If time or student ability are a concern, use the Handout Three: “UNHCR Vocabulary Sheet (Simplified)”for which students do not need to write the definitions.

  8. As a class, write and discuss the definition of each vocabulary word. Teacher gives definition, the class discusses the meaning, and the students write the definitions.

  9. After the students write down each definition, have them think of real-life examples of the terms they have defined. Discuss these examples as a class before moving to the next definition. (Students do not need to include a real-life example of UNHCR because UNHCR is already a specific entity.)

  10. Distribute student copies of “Universal Declaration of Human Rights (abbreviated)” and discuss what rights each person is entitled to have as human beings. (You may also want to use the unabridged version of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights for students who are advanced learners.)

  11. Ask the students: "Why should we, as part of the Family/Household sector, be concerned about the rights of others? "Write the phrase "enlightened self-interest" in a display area. Ask the students what they think it might mean. Share the definition: "sacrificing time and resourcesfor the benefit of the whole, which, in turn, benefits self; understanding that what is good for the community is good for me." Guide a discussion relating self-interest to the common good (good for the community).

  12. As an exit card, have the students complete the following statement: “The most important right that all humans should have is ___________________________ because ______________________________________________. Without this right,people would feel _________________________________ because they would not have __________________________________________.”

Philanthropy Framework

  1. Strand PHIL.I Definitions of Philanthropy
    1. Standard DP 01. Define Philanthropy
      1. Benchmark MS.3 Identify the philanthropic ideas embedded in a nation's founding documents.
    2. Standard DP 02. Roles of Government, Business, and Philanthropy
      1. Benchmark E.4 Define each of the sectors: business, government, civil society, and family.
    3. Standard DP 03. Names and Types of Organizations within the Civil Society Sector
      1. Benchmark E.1 Name and recognize the civil society sector as a separate part of the community.
      2. Benchmark MS.1 Recognize terms that describe the civil society sector.
  2. Strand PHIL.II Philanthropy and Civil Society
    1. Standard PCS 01. Self, citizenship, and society
      1. Benchmark MS.2 Discuss why some animals and humans will sacrifice for the benefit of unknown others.
    2. Standard PCS 05. Philanthropy and Government
      1. Benchmark MS.3 Identify the relationship between individual rights and community responsibilities.
  3. Strand PHIL.III Philanthropy and the Individual
    1. Standard PI 01. Reasons for Individual Philanthropy
      1. Benchmark MS.2 Explain and give examples of enlightened self-interest, egoism, and altruism as they relate to philanthropy.
      2. Benchmark MS.5 Describe the responsibility students have to act in the civil society sector to improve the common good.