What is persecution?

It is generally accepted that to be an asylum seeker and then accepted as a refugee, one must be fleeing persecution. With all the discussion of exactly what constitutes an asylum seeker/refugee of late, it is appropriate to look at the definition of persecution.

In 1951, persecution for the purposes of being granted refugee status was defined as:

A refugee, according to the Convention, is someone who is unable or unwilling to return to their country of origin owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion.

http://www.unhcr.org/3b66c2aa10.html Page 3

This does not make any mention of persecution by one’s own government. In Australia we hear much griping about “economic refugees”. It goes a little like this: “Oh they are not REAL refugees, they are only looking for a better life, they are just economic refugees.”

I was prompted to think of this today when I saw a cartoon circulating on social media.



Unfortunately, for many people in the world the above cartoon accurately describes the nations in which they live.  Yet I don’t see this covered by the refugee convention definition. The underlying premise back then was really one of a group being persecuted by another group. The above cartoon probably falls more correctly under crimes against humanity. What are crimes against humanity?

Article 7

Crimes against humanity

1.         For the purpose of this Statute, “crime against humanity” means any of the following acts when committed as part of a widespread or systematic attack directed against any civilian population, with knowledge of the attack:

(a)     Murder;

(b)     Extermination;

(c)     Enslavement;

(d)     Deportation or forcible transfer of population;

(e)     Imprisonment or other severe deprivation of physical liberty in violation of fundamental rules of international law;

(f)     Torture;

(g)     Rape, sexual slavery, enforced prostitution, forced pregnancy, enforced sterilization, or any other form of sexual violence of comparable gravity;

(h)     Persecution against any identifiable group or collectivity on political, racial, national, ethnic, cultural, religious, gender as defined in paragraph 3, or other grounds that are universally recognized as impermissible under international law, in connection with any act referred to in this paragraph or any crime within the jurisdiction of the Court;

(i)     Enforced disappearance of persons;

(j)     The crime of apartheid;

(k)     Other inhumane acts of a similar character intentionally causing great suffering, or serious injury to body or to mental or physical health.


Can one be granted refugee status for fleeing crimes against humanity? How do we encourage people to see that governments allowing children to die of hunger or dehydration when it need not be so is a crime against humanity?

I asked myself where did this term economic refugee originate from? Who are we defining as economic refugees?

One definition of a economic refugee is:

An individual  who, solely for economic purposes, seeks refugee status in  another country.  Also referred to as economic migrants. Typically, an economic refugee will do  this in order to earn a higher rate of pay for a job in their  new country.

Read more: http://www.businessdictionary.com/definition/economic-refugee.html#ixzz2Vc34Le9l

If a person has no job, has no way of feeding or educating the children, then somehow I don’t see they fit the definition. I agree that anything greater than zero equals higher, but I don’t really think that is the point, do you? When I think economic refugee, I think of someone already employed who wants to earn more. Not a bad objective, but not, I agree, escaping persecution.

I am asking these questions because I do not know the answers and if I do not know the answers I am reasonably sure there are many other members of the community who do not know either. Yet these are questions we must answer before we further persecute people by denying their situation. The answers to these questions are often not provided by the mainstream media either – they merely regurgitate the soundbites of politicians trying to attract votes.

In many of these countries corruption is so entrenched that fighting against the government (at whatever level) will see other crimes against humanity perpetrated: disappearances, murders, torture or imprisonment to name but a few. Yet none of this may be the result of “reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group” and it can be damn hard to prove “political opinion” as of course the regime in charge makes very sure that officially there is no difference of political opinion. Corrupt regimes like to look like model societies to the outside world.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights states:

Article 25.

(1) Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of   livelihood in circumstances beyond his control.


Is it a crime against humanity for a government not to comply with the above article, preferring to stuff its own coffers, or more correctly the coffers of senior members? Or in some first world countries, the coffers of pharmaceutical giants?

It is very easy for those of us living in a first world country, not forced to be religious by law, not forced to be second-class citizens because of our gender or have acid thrown in our faces for wanting an education, to have no comprehension of living in the parts of the world where people are treated with much cruelty by their own.

The reality is we can’t open our doors and take all the poor of the world into other countries. It isn’t possible. That aside, I do believe we need to broaden our definition of persecution. Governments can persecute their own people without technically falling into the definition of persecution as given in 1951 and we need to recognise that.

“Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men.” ~ John Emerich Edward Dalberg Acton – Lord Acton.

I tend to think Lord Acton generalised a little too broadly, but history tells us in too many cases he is right.

I don’t pretend to have answers to this one. I am really just thinking aloud, hoping to encourage others to think too. The world has changed and continues to change in ways we never envisaged. This creates problems we have no ways of dealing with ……. yet. I am confident in time we will. We have managed space travel and many other marvellous feats: how can we convince the people of the world to care about each other, including their own?

10 comments on “What is persecution?

  1. Great article, Robyn – these aspects are often forgotten by the lucky ones in Australia. On a related note, I wanted to mention also that sometimes it’s not only a government that prevents people from leading fulfilling lives – sometimes it’s deeply ingrained cultural structures. There are many countries where one’s potential for life is limited by the circumstances of one’s birth – if a person is not lucky enough to be born into a wealthy family with connections in high places, then they can forget about trying to improve the quality of their lives, no matter what intellectual or entrepreneurial potential they might have. In Jordan, where my husband’s from, they say, “the farmer’s son is a farmer, and the minister’s son is a minister”. Having lived there for several years, I can tell you that it’s true. Although the occupations in that adage are an illustration only, not long ago there was a scandal about a real minister’s son ‘inheriting’ a place in the government from his father. It’s a problem that penetrates to every field in the society.

    Another example is the caste system, especially the Untouchables, in India, though I don’t know to what extent this is still an issue in the present day (however I suspect that it’s still relevant). I also know that in a certain country in Central Asia, which I will not name, some children don’t have a chance to complete schooling successfully because their parents can’t afford to bribe the teachers for the good grades that the children deserve through their own hard work. I am sure the list of similar injustices elsewhere is endless, as there are plenty of ways of people to be cruel to other people.

    Here in Australia we have become a country of elitist fat cats who don’t want anyone else to join the ‘rich’ club, forgetting of course that everyone except First Nations people once came from immigrant stock themselves.


    • Ana, thank you for such a wonderful contribution. You are of course right in regards to deeply ingrained cultural structures. My own husband would never have embarked on a political career at all had it not been for expectations steeped in traditional values.

      Miss O 1 and I were discussing the caste system today and I was relating a story to her of a couple I knew who migrated to Australia to escape just that. They have a love marriage, something still considered a little unusual in India. Worse that that, they were from different castes. The partner from the lower social caste were richer than the family from the higher caste, so both families were angry over the match. One side due to the marriage being to a lower caste, the other due to the marriage being to a poorer family. I do hope that couple have found what they were seeking, just the freedom to love each other, in Australia.

      I know what you say is true, Ana. I also know Jordan is not the only place this is true.

      Thank you.


  2. ” . . . . how can we convince the people of the world to care about each other, including their own?” This is a question worth pondering about, Robyn.

    You say: “The reality is we can’t open our doors and take all the poor of the world into other countries. It isn’t possible.”

    The question is, can all the persecuted of the world be taken into other countries? Ideally nobody would be persecuted. But persecution seems to be rampant in many countries. I wished that this was not so. But how can you stop widespread persecution?

    You say: “The world has changed and continues to change in ways we never envisaged. This creates problems we have no ways of dealing with ……. yet. I am confident in time we will.”

    You are right, Robyn, by saying we can only hope to encourage others to think too . . . .


    • Thanks Uta. It is a challenge the world faces and yet there is no collective approach. Why not? Religious differences, political differences, too much “they are different”.

      Territorial – humans are so territorial, apart from anything else. My intuition tells me sometime in the next 200 years something dramatic is going to happen.


      • A ‘collective approach’: That’s what the UN is about, isn’t it? Alas, it seems so far probably no general support for it. It just takes time. 200 years? Seems like a very long time. Think how much changed during the last 100 years! What if in the next 50 years already a lot more changes are going to come? I’m not likely to be around for another 20 years even. 10 years? Maybe. Drastic changes within the next 10 years? I wouldn’t have much of a clue about this.
        I just have a rather strong belief that in the end good can overcome evil. 🙂


      • I hope you are right about the good and evil, Uta. At the moment, I’m not seeing it…. maybe it is just a case of things getting worse before they get better?


  3. Thanks for referring to my post. I’m glad it was of use (: Good luck with your journey!


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