Forced Migrants

Forced Migration: An Overview*

by Elisa Mason
(updated as of Jan. 2021)

Migration typologies often characterize population movements by the degree of choice involved in the decision to leave home. On one end of the spectrum, “voluntary” migrants exercise maximum choice when they head for new horizons, most often for economic reasons, while at the other end, “involuntary” migrants exercise no choice when they are forced out of their homes. Over time, however, this bipolar view of population flows has been deemed overly simplistic. In reality, “few migrants are wholly voluntary or wholly involuntary. Almost all migration involves some kind of compulsion; at the same time almost all migration involves choices” (Van Hear 1998a, 42).

Forced migration flows occur because of a variety of causal factors, including persecution, natural and industrial disasters, development projects, environmental degradation, war and conflict, ethnic discrimination, etc. A number of paradigms have been produced in an attempt to capture the full range of these causes (see, e.g., Richmond 1996, Van Hear 1998a). In general, though, the two categories of forced migrants most often discussed in the literature are “refugees” and “internally displaced persons” (IDPs).

1. Refugees

Much attention has been devoted to refugees because of the complex network of laws and institutions that have evolved since the 1950s to provide assistance and protection to them. According to the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees and its 1967 Protocol, refugee status is conferred to individuals meeting the following three criteria:

  • they have a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion;
  • they are outside of their country; and
  • they cannot or will not, because of their fear, rely on the protection of their own government (UN High Commissioner for Refugees 2007a, 1:12).

Two regional instruments in Africa and the Americas, respectively, enlarged the concept of refugee to include not only individual persecution, the first criterion set out above, but also armed conflict and massive violations of human rights (UN High Commissioner for Refugees 2007a, 3:938-9, 1107). The key distinguishing element in these definitions is the stipulation that an international border must be crossed. This requirement effectively disqualifies millions of internally displaced persons (IDPs)—who may have fled for the very same reasons as refugees, but remained in their countries—from refugee status. In addition, the refugee definitions place emphasis on persecution or violence as causal factors, and therefore do not recognize disasters, catastrophes, or involuntary resettlement by governments as legitimate grounds for refugee status.

People applying for refugee status are also referred to as asylum-seekers. The individual states that ratify the 1951 Convention and/or its 1967 Protocol use the refugee definition as a basis for determining who is granted asylum. In practice, though, national authorities interpret each element of the definition in different ways—What is well-founded fear? What is the nature of persecution? What constitutes a social group?—producing a sizeable body of case law in the process. Once a person has been recognized as a refugee by a receiving country, s/he is granted legal entry, accorded certain rights as set out in the 1951 Convention, and is eligible for assistance. However, many countries offer different levels of protection, besides the gold standard of refugee status: for example, temporary protection to war victims or humanitarian protection to those who have not been recognized as refugees, but nevertheless may be endangered should they return to their countries of origin (Castles et al. 2005, 1:12). Thus, the stakes for being “labeled” a particular way are significant.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) is the principal international body responsible for assisting and protecting refugees. Through its headquarters in Geneva and branch offices around the world, UNHCR promotes refugee rights, coordinates humanitarian response to refugee emergencies, and attempts to find solutions to refugee problems. The agency also undertakes refugee status determination for countries not in a position to do so themselves. UNHCR uses its own refugee definition to decide who falls within its mandate. While it is similarly worded to that of the 1951 Convention (UN High Commissioner for Refugees 2007a, 1:7), its overall scope has been extended over the years by the UN General Assembly to include war victims, stateless persons, and other “persons of concern,” including some IDPs. As of the end of 2019, UNHCR was providing assistance and protection to over 20 million people (UN High Commissioner for Refugees 2020, 2).

A second relevant refugee organization with a more focused mandate is the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA). UNRWA was established to assist Palestinian refugees, defined as “persons whose normal place of residence was Palestine between June 1946 and May 1948 and who lost their homes and means of livelihood as a result of the 1948 Arab-Israeli conflict” (Nabulsi 2005, 2:627). The definition extends to descendants of those who became refugees in 1948. As Rempel notes, this is an operational definition that “merely establishes criteria for assistance—it does not define refugee status” (2006, 6). Most Palestinian refugees are excluded from refugee status under the 1951 Convention; Article 1(D) stipulates that “This Convention shall not apply to persons who are at present receiving from organs or agencies of the United Nations other than the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees protection or assistance” (UN High Commissioner for Refugees 2007a, 1:12). Today, over 5 million Palestinians are registered with UNRWA, 1.7 million of which live in 58 different camps in Jordan, Lebanon, the Syrian Arab Republic, the West Bank and Gaza Strip (UNRWA 2019, 1; UNRWA n.d.).

For more information, see: Guide to International Refugee Law Resources on the Web

2. Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs)

In recognition of the restrictiveness of the refugee definition, the plight of “internally displaced persons” has received greater attention in recent years. This category encompasses a wider variety of causal factors that contribute to flight than the refugee definition does. The United Nations defines IDPs as “persons or groups of persons who have been forced or obliged to flee or to leave their homes or places of habitual residence, in particular as a result of or in order to avoid the effects of armed conflict, situations of generalized violence, violations of human rights or natural or human-made disasters, and who have not crossed an internationally recognized State border” (UN Commission on Human Rights 1998, para. 2). This definition was formalized in 1998 in the Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement, a series of 30 principles that provide a legal and normative framework for providing protection to IDPs. The principles were the key accomplishment of the Representative of the Secretary-General on Internally Displaced Persons (now the Representative of the UN Secretary-General on the Human Rights of Internally Displaced Persons), who today is promoting their implementation by national authorities.

While the Guiding Principles promote protection for all internally displaced persons no matter their cause of flight, in practice, IDPs tend to be divided into three subsets, in large part because different agencies have different operational mandates relating to them: conflict-displaced, disaster-displaced and development-displaced.


This category of displaced persons is virtually indistinguishable from refugees in terms of causes of flight. The significant difference is that flight occurs internally, or within the confines of the country of origin. For this reason, providing assistance to internally displaced persons has been viewed as the responsibility of national authorities rather than international ones. However, the increase in conflicts since the end of the Cold War has produced greater numbers of internally displaced,[1] along with the recognition that IDPs “are often in need of special protection, not least because the government responsible for protecting them is sometimes unwilling or unable to do so, or may itself be the cause of displacement (Brun 2005, 3). Examples of human rights violations to which IDPs are more vulnerable are “forced movement, including forced relocation and return; restrictions on freedom of movement; violations of land, housing and property rights; and forcible recruitment to the armed forces and militia groups” (Feller 2006, 12; see also Mooney 2005, 14-21).

The principle of sovereignty is usually invoked in the context of internal displacement, and it has been used to curtail humanitarian assistance and protection to IDPs in the past. However, even when aid workers have been on the ground in an unfolding emergency, the lack of a lead agency for IDPs and any clear rules for providing assistance to them has resulted in an ad hoc, uncoordinated, and ultimately, ineffective response. A review of the United Nations’ humanitarian system was undertaken in 2005 in order to evaluate this response to emergencies (Adinolfi et al. 2005). The review identified a number of gaps which compromised the ability of aid agencies to deliver assistance effectively, particularly to IDPs. In an attempt to fill these gaps, the Inter-Agency Standing Committee (IASC) defined 11 humanitarian “clusters”—agriculture; camp coordination and management; early recovery; education; emergency shelter; emergency telecommunications; health; logistics; nutrition; protection; water, sanitation and hygiene—and for each, designated a lead international agency to be responsible for ensuring that the necessary tasks associated with the cluster be undertaken. The Emergency Relief Coordinator (ERC) of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Assistance (OCHA) is charged with supporting this inter-agency response.

The development of the cluster approach has helped to more clearly define a division of labor for those working with internally displaced persons. Of particular significance is UNHCR’s agreement “to play a leading role in efforts to ensure the protection of conflict-related IDPs, the provision of emergency shelter to such populations, as well as the coordination and management of IDP camps” (UN High Commissioner for Refugees 2007b, 2). This agreement comes with caveats, however: UNHCR’s involvement is predicated on the right to seek asylum not being undermined and receiving the consent of the host government (International Council of Voluntary Agencies 2005, 7-8).


The definition of internally displaced person as set out in the Guiding Principles also covers those fleeing from natural disasters (e.g., earthquakes, floods, hurricanes, volcanoes, etc.) and human-made disasters (e.g., industrial accidents, hazardous material incidents, etc.). The human impact of these events is significant: an average of 224 million people were affected[2] annually by natural disasters alone during 2006-2015, while an average 69,000 were killed annually over the same period (Centre for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters 2017). In addition, data collected by the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC) shows that "an average of 24 million new displacements a year were recorded between 2008 and 2018, three times the figure for people displaced by conflict and violence" (IDMC 2019, 6).  Environmental changes and degradation are often linked to disasters. For example, deforestation and other agricultural practices can intensify the impact of floods and landslides. Many observers also predict that climate change will displace huge numbers of people (e.g., Baird et al. 2007). At the same time, Castles et al. point out that

"While environmental factors do play a part in forced migration, displacements due to environmental factors are always closely linked to other factors, such as social and ethnic conflict, weak states, inequitable distribution of resources and abuse of human rights. Thus it is almost impossible to define who is an environmental or disaster displacee, or to quantify this category in any meaningful way" (2005, 14).

Populations displaced by disasters are generally assisted by the same humanitarian organizations as those displaced by conflict. While the discussion in the preceding section highlighted the UN’s role in formulating policy on IDPs, the Red Cross/Red Crescent Movement and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) are usually the principal players operating at the field level in humanitarian emergencies. The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) was established in 1863 to protect victims of armed conflict and to promote adherence to international humanitarian law. It is an organization that is international both in its scope and through the mandate that has been conferred to it by the Geneva Conventions and their Additional Protocols. However, it is not an intergovernmental body; rather, “[i]n most of the countries in which it works, the ICRC has concluded headquarters agreements with the authorities. Through these agreements, which are subject to international law, the ICRC enjoys the privileges and immunities usually only granted to intergovernmental organizations…” (ICRC 2005, 6), thus enabling it to maintain the neutrality and independence it requires to do its work.

The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) began as the League of Red Cross Societies in 1919. Its role is to coordinate the relief activities of the National Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies around the world. Together, the ICRC, IFRC and National Societies comprise the RC/RC Movement. National Societies first must be recognized by the ICRC before they can become a part of the Movement. The Movement has a unique status within the international community, since its components are seen as auxiliaries of public authorities but they must be allowed to operate autonomously and in accordance with the fundamental principles of the Movement. Moreover, they are national entities that are regulated by international humanitarian law.

While emergency situations were traditionally the purview of the Red Cross, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) began entering this landscape in greater numbers in the early 1990s. Today, they are considered the key implementing agencies of international humanitarian action (Stoddard 2003, 25). Although no firm count exists, ReliefWeb’s directory of humanitarian organizations has entries for over 1,200 NGOs.[3] According to Stoddard (2006), the five biggest international NGOs involved in humanitarian assistance are CARE International, Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), Oxfam International, Save the Children Federation, and World Vision, based on their annual budgets; these range from $200 million to $800 million (p. 4). To fulfill their humanitarian remit, NGOs use their funds to improve the lives of others, and they have the flexibility and independence to realize their objectives in hands-on, often innovative ways for sustained periods. Both the Red Cross and NGOs operate on a “first in, last out” basis; they are more easily able to mobilize resources, and they are more likely to stay on in deteriorating security situations. Thus, NGOs, the RC/RC Movement, and the UN together represent the three pillars of the humanitarian community, and any lasting reform of the overall system must ultimately take their perspectives and unique roles into consideration.

In the aftermath of a disaster, the focus is usually on assistance: providing shelter, food, and health care, for example. However, the Representative of the UN Secretary-General on the Human Rights of Internally Displaced Persons has noted that “persons forced to leave their homes share many common types of vulnerability regardless of the underlying reasons for their displacement…” (Kalin 2005, 11), the principal one being human rights protection. Mooney (2005) emphasizes that “protection always has been the most persistent and critical gap in responses to internal displacement” (p. 21). While the cluster approach for improved humanitarian response described above applies to both conflict and disaster situations, UNHCR’s role as the lead agency for the protection cluster does not extend to the disaster-displaced. According to McNamara (2006), the following arrangements have been made as an alternative: “Protection in disaster settings and in other situations requiring a protection response would be decided through consultation among the three UN protection-mandated agencies (UNHCR, OHCHR and UNICEF)[4] on a case-by-case basis, with one of the three taking the lead in a given context” (p. 10).


Sometimes referred to in the literature as “oustees,” development displacees are “people forcibly ‘ousted’ from their habitat through government intervention, generally for the purpose of some development-required change in land or water use…” (Cernea 1996, 293). Typical projects include dams, urban renewal, transportation infrastructure, and natural resource extraction (e.g., mining). As the primary funder of such projects, the World Bank has developed a resettlement policy that calls for avoiding or minimizing population displacement whenever possible, and requiring compensation and assistance for anyone that is displaced. Regional development banks for Asia, Africa and the Americas have followed suit, developing involuntary resettlement policies of their own.[5]

No formal statistics are compiled for the development-displaced, and the most recent global estimate of 15 million per year is over 10 years old (IDMC 2018, 54).  Moreover, “[w]hile victims of disaster—especially natural disaster—generally are the focus of sympathetic attention and international aid (as are many of those displaced by conflict), the same cannot be said for victims of development-induced displacement, although the consequences may be comparably dire” (Robinson 2003, 3). Researchers have found that greater impoverishment tends to result from resettlement, and vulnerable populations such as indigenous groups and other marginalized peoples suffer disproportionately (see, e.g., Cernea 1996).

While national authorities are responsible for developing resettlement plans, compensating those who are displaced, and ensuring that livelihoods are maintained or reinstated, Robinson (2003) points out that the international community can respond to situations of arbitrary development displacement if the state fails to take action (p. 28). The problem is that no international agencies are specifically mandated to provide assistance and protection to oustees. Mooney (2005) argues that the Guiding Principles were intended to apply to development situations, and notes that Principle 6 directly addresses displacement by development projects (p. 12). Moreover, many observers emphasize the human rights component of involuntary resettlement (see, e.g., Pettersson 2002). As such, the Representative of the UN Secretary-General on the Human Rights of Internally Displaced Persons may be best positioned to garner the same commitment from the international community to help development displacees that is currently given to both conflict and disaster IDPs.

For more information, see: Internally Displaced Persons: Guide to Legal Information Resources on the Web

3. Trafficked Persons

Many researchers also include “trafficked persons” in their forced migrant typology. “Trafficking in persons” is defined in Article 3 of the 2000 Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, especially Women and Children as follows:

“‘Trafficking in persons’ shall mean the recruitment, transportation, transfer, harbouring or receipt of persons, by means of the threat or use of force or other forms of coercion, of abduction, of fraud, of deception, of the abuse of power or of a position of vulnerability or of the giving or receiving of payments or benefits to achieve the consent of a person having control over another person, for the purpose of exploitation. Exploitation shall include, at a minimum, the exploitation of the prostitution of others or other forms of sexual exploitation, forced labour or services, slavery or practices similar to slavery, servitude or the removal of organs… (United Nations 2000, 2).”

The Special Rapporteur on the Human Rights Aspects of the Victims of Trafficking in Persons, especially Women and Children clarified aspects of this definition in her report to the Economic and Social Council. She noted that 1) the definition goes on to say that consent of the victim is irrelevant if any of the means in the above paragraph were used for recruitment purposes; 2) the aim of the Protocol is not to abolish prostitution but rather to abolish coercive practices; and 3) the Protocol does not characterize trafficking solely as a transnational problem; it can occur within a country just as easily (UN Commission on Human Rights 2006, 9).

Trafficked persons are differentiated from smuggled persons in international law. A separate Protocol to the UN Convention against Transnational Organized Crime focuses on the “Smuggling of Migrants by Land, Sea and Air.” However, forced migration researchers suggest the two categories are not perfectly distinct. For example, some smuggled people may have legitimate claims to asylum but their opportunity to pursue those claims may be limited because of increasingly restrictive asylum policies. In addition, migrants who start out being smuggled may end up being trafficked before they reach their destination. Yet because the two Protocols offer different levels of protection to one category over the other, “[t]here is thus much to be gained from being classified as trafficked, and much to lose from being considered smuggled” (Bhabha and Zard 2006, 7). Because “[v]iolence, coercion, deception and ex­ploitation can and do occur within both the trafficking and smuggling process, within the formal and informal economy, within the legal and illegal migrant experience, …policy needs to take this into account” (Bhabha and Zard 2006, 8).

While the Protocol makes recommendations to its States parties for providing assistance and protection to trafficking victims, these have yet to be translated into reality. As the custodian of the Protocol, the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) launched the Global Initiative to Fight Human Trafficking in order to promote greater enforcement of the Protocol. An important corollary of combating trafficking is better reporting by national authorities to ensure more accurate data are collected on trafficking flows and numbers of victims. In 2016, the International Labour Organization (ILO) estimated that some 40.3 million were victims of modern slavery (ILO n.d.).

4. The Academic Perspective on Forced Migration Definitions

The predominant theme of this brief and somewhat cursory overview is that forced migration definitions are driven by policy and operational concerns (see Annex for "Legal/Operational Definitions of Forced Migrants"); they are used to distinguish a specific population that can be assisted by the international community and they spell out the conditions under which an organization will respond to a particular displacement emergency. For millions of people, not receiving a label can translate to falling through the cracks of international assistance. This theme has been discussed within academic circles for some time. The consensus for many is that despite the availability of these discrete categories, on the ground it is much more difficult to make very clear distinctions. As Van Hear observes, “In real situations…these categories are often inextricably mixed, and it seems logically, practically, and morally absurd to single out one category of forced migrant for protection and assistance over others” (1998b, 348).

Many academic researchers also assert that scientific inquiry and empirical research should not be based on pre-defined operational designations. Instead, a well-designed study begins by framing the question it seeks to answer. The formulation of the problem will then define the population of interest from which to select a representative subset for sampling purposes. A methodologically sound study ensures a researcher can draw meaningful and generalizable conclusions from empirical, or verifiable, evidence. Turton (2003) elaborates on the role of scientific inquiry:

“The scientific point of distinguishing subsets within a class of related phenomena is to encourage and facilitate comparison between those subsets, in order to throw light on the wider class, and to aid (in the sense of make more acute) the observation, description and analysis of empirical data. These objectives are interdependent, since there must be a constant readiness to revise and sharpen abstract categories in the light of empirical observation. The trouble with the categories used within refugee studies is that, being dictated by political and policy concerns rather than scientific ones, they actually discourage comparison within the broader category of forced migration and are not amenable to revision in the light of empirical evidence (p. 14).”

One example of “distinguishing subsets within a class of related phenomena” is provided by Rogge (1978/79) from his study of African “refugees.” He identified seven different types of forced migrants,[6] all of which had refugee characteristics but only three of which were consistently recognized as refugees. Rogge concluded that there is a “need for the migration analyst to distinguish between ‘official’ refugees, as defined by agencies such as the UNHCR or OAU, and the broader and more numerous ‘unofficial’ refugees, as accepted by popular concepts of ‘refugees.’ …By recognizing this diverse character of Africa’s refugees, and hence not being restrictive to only legally recognized refugees, the full spectrum of forced migrants on the continent can be investigated” (pp. 58-59).

At the same time, the research community itself has experienced what Robinson terms a “fragmentation of academic effort into the study of forced migration” (1998, p. 206): “Convention refugees are studied by those in refugee studies, development-induced oustees by those in anthropology, ecological migrants by those in the field of disaster studies, ethnic and racial ‘misfits’ by sociologists, and state slaves by social historians…” (p. 206). According to some, this fragmentation is compounded by a bias toward the study of refugees. In her search for “literature concerning all subjects of human displacement— refugees, returnees, internally displaced persons and stayees alike,” Lammers (1999) concluded that “both scholarly and humanitarian attention is almost exclusively oriented towards those who…become designated as refugees” (p. 27, emphasis in the original). While conscious attempts have been made recently to move beyond a refugee-centric model,[6] Cernea (2006) still sees a three-way divide, among studies of conflict-displacees/refugees, development-displacees, and disaster-displacees. Turton (2003b) concurs, finding that some researchers use “forced migration” to refer solely to refugees and conflict-IDPs, excluding other causal factors from their analyses.

Calls to bridge research divides, adopt a unitary study of forced migration, and break down academic boundaries suggest that in tracing the connections among types of forced migrants, researchers have the opportunity to arrive at a greater consensus about the actual scope of forced migration studies. The benefits for doing so are fourfold, according to Cernea:

Empirically, the [separate] bodies of research could enrich each other by comparing their factual findings. Theoretically, they could broaden their conceptualizations by exploring links and similarities between their sets of variables. Methodologically, they could sharpen their inquiry by borrowing and exchanging research techniques. And politically, they could influence the public arena more strongly by mutually reinforcing their policy advocacy and operational recommendations (2000, 17, footnote 3, emphasis in original).”

In the end, promoting a cross-pollination of ideas and approaches is one of the principal objectives of the various information services that I offer.[7] Doing so, it is hoped, will accomplish the following: support an inclusive approach to the study of forced migration; encourage research by forced migration issue rather than by forced migrant type; identify what has been done as well as gaps; facilitate access to research literature across disparate sub-groupings; and, most importantly, contribute positively to a better understanding of, and a search for solutions to, the problem of human displacement in the world today.

*Portions of this introduction are reproduced from Mason, Elisa, "Forced Migration Studies: Surveying the Reference Landscape," Libri 50(4), 2000.


1. IDMC's most recent Global Report on Internal Displacement puts the total number of conflict IDPs in 2019 at 45.7 million.

2. Defined as “[p]eople requiring immediate assistance during a period of emergency, i.e., requiring basic survival needs such as food, water, shelter, sanitation and immediate medical assistance” (UN-DHA 1992).

3. ReliefWeb's directory of humanitarian organizations can be accessed here. The type of organization can be used to filter results, e.g., by NGO, IGO, etc.

4. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, and the United Nations Children's Fund, respectively.

5. See the World Bank's policy on involuntary resettlement and related policies of development banks for Africa, the Americas and Asia.   

6. Read the introduction to the Oxford Handbook on Refugee and Forced Migration Studies (Oxford Univ. Press, 2014) for more on this.

7. A listing is available here.


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________. 2007b. Policy Framework and Corporate Strategy: UNHCR’s Role in Support of an Enhanced Inter-Agency Response to the Protection of Internally Displaced Persons, Informal Consultative Meeting, 30 January 2007. Geneva: UNHCR.

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________. 1998b. “Editorial Introduction.” Journal of Refugee Studies 11(4): 341-49.

Annex: Legal/Operational Definitions of Forced Migrants

This listing of the different types of forced migrants described above indicates 1) the sources for their legal/operational definitions and 2) the primary international agencies designated to provide assistance to them.

1) Designated as "persons of concern" under UNHCR’s operational definition
2) UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR

1) Intro., para. 2 of Annex, 1998 Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement
2) Humanitarian cluster leads include Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Assistance (OCHA), UN Development Programme (UNDP), UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF), World Food Programme (WFP), World Health Organization (WHO)

1) Financial institutions’ operational definitions; see, e.g., World Bank 
2) None

2) Humanitarian cluster leads include Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), International Federation of Red Cross & Red Crescent Societies (IFRC), International Organization for Migration (IOM), UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Assistance (OCHA), UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), UN Development Programme (UNDP), UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF), World Food Programme (WFP), World Health Organization (WHO)

Palestinian refugees:
2) UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA)

2) UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR

2) None