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What Is Refoulement?

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  • Written By: Pablo Garcia
  • Edited By: O. Wallace
  • Last Modified Date: 03 December 2016
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The term refoulement is from the French verb refouler, meaning “to turn away” or “to force back.” In international law, it means the expulsion from a country of a person who has the right to be recognized as a refugee and is seeking asylum. The principle of non-refoulement was first established in the 1954 United Nations Convention relating to the Status of Refugees.

Under the principal of non-refoulement, no state may expel or return a refugee to a frontier or territory where her life or freedom would be threatened because of race, nationality, membership in a social organization, or political beliefs. It also forbids the expulsion of a refugee to any country where she might be subject to persecution. The only exception to this prohibition is when the refugee posses a threat to national security.

In international law, the bar against refoulement is universally accepted as an idea. However, not all countries are “contracting states” of the UN Convention relating to the Status of Refugees. The convention also requires that a person seeking asylum be of “recognized” refugee status. Some countries may not have any established procedures for determining refugee status.

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Over the years, to deal with increasing numbers of refugees, developed countries began to interpret refoulement more strictly and narrow its definition. In the US, the UN Convention relating to the Status of refugees is interpreted as applying only to refugees who have actually entered a country. Thus, the turning away of refugees at sea before their arrival does not constitute refoulement.

The US also includes in the threat to national security exception a list of crimes that are considered “particularly serious.” There need not be a case-by-case consideration if the crime is on the list. Temporary asylum with a fixed expiration date also began to be granted to refugees. The theory is that some refugees could be returned home after political or social upheavals had passed. The EU and Australia have adopted similar policies based on the lack of resources to handle the worlds’ increasing refugee population.

Under US law, a refugee is a person who is located outside the US, of special humanitarian concern, persecuted under the definition used in the UN Convention relating to the Status of Refugees, and is not firmly resettled in any other country. Those who ordered, incited, or participated in the persecution of any person are excluded from refugee status. Asylum is available to persons who meet the definition of refugee, are already in the US, and seek asylum at a designated port of entry.

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