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Refugee Origins and Destinations

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  • 0:35 What is a Refugee?
  • 0:56 Places That Produce Refugees
  • 1:45 Intermediate Steps
  • 3:22 Why Accept Refugees
  • 4:31 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Kevin Newton

Kevin has edited encyclopedias, taught middle and high school history, and has a master's degree in Islamic law.

If you've watched the news, chances are you've seen refugees fleeing trouble. But what exactly is a refugee? Why do they leave? And why do some countries accept them? This lesson seeks to answer those questions.

What Is a Refugee?

Imagine that you and your family are living quietly in the same village or neighborhood that they've lived in for generations. However, suddenly, the situation changes. A civil war has broken out. A new government or large group has decided that your ethnic group, religious group, or even social class presents a problem that can only be cured through the destruction of all individuals in the group. A hurricane or other natural disaster destroys your whole way of life.

Suddenly, you are a refugee. A refugee is someone who, for whatever reason, is forced to flee across international borders for fear of their own lives. Simply wanting to move to a different country does not make you a refugee. Instead, having your whole life depend on getting away is what makes a refugee.

Places That Produce Refugees

Sadly, your village or neighborhood could have been in any number of places in the contemporary world. Natural disasters throughout South Asia cause many refugees, as does religious unrest in the Middle East and ethnic violence in Africa. Not to be excluded are those who were refugees for political reasons, such as people who believed in democracy fleeing out of the communist Soviet Union towards the democratic West.

And refugees are nothing new. In the Hebrew tradition, the Jews were refugees from Egypt. In Islamic history, Muhammad sent many of his followers to safety in Ethiopia to escape persecution. Though separated by time and place, these groups had the same goals in mind - simply trying to find a safe place to live out their lives with their families. Unfortunately, the journey is almost never that easy.

Intermediate Steps

So in leaving your village, you think being a refugee is some simple thing. Simply cross a border or buy a plane ticket and away you go. Unfortunately, it is rarely that easy. Think about simply moving across town. And, it takes money! Whether it's gas for your car or fare for a bus or taxi, even a short move takes money. Now imagine doing that over hundreds of miles, with people actively trying to find you and kill you. Also, flights may not exist when you do get to the airport, or the shortest way to a new country may be impossible.

As a result, many refugees have to take intermediate steps along the way. A great example of this can be seen by people fleeing conflicts in Eritrea in Africa and Syria in the Middle East. For these refugees, Europe is an ideal goal, as the Europeans have a policy that is friendly towards accepting refugees. For many people, despite the added expense, it is often better to go to places like Egypt or Turkey on their way. However, the Egyptian or Turkish authorities treat these migrants as illegal immigrants, meaning that they would be deported if they were found.

As a result, the refugees often have to pay middlemen, who receive exorbitant amounts of money to get them to Europe. This can be done through smuggling them in trucks, through false passports or, sadly, through small, leaky overcrowded ships sailing across the Mediterranean. For years, in America we saw the same thing with people floating from Cuba on small boats. The risks are high, and many hundreds of refugees die along the way. However, good news awaits them when they arrive.

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