Sunday 20th June 2021 marks World Refugee Day, an initiative by the UN which highlights the power of inclusion and standing together to build a stronger, safer world for us all.
To commemorate the 70th anniversary of the 1951 Refugee Convention, which defined a refugee under international law, this year the UNHCR, the UN refugee agency, is asking the public for contributions to The Refugee Dictionary, asking what being a refugee means to people today.
By definition, refugees are people who have been forced to leave their homes or their country. This could be because of war in their home country or because of their political or religious beliefs. The UN recognises several types of refugees: asylum seekers, displaced persons, stateless persons and returnees.
A question we’re always interested in is where vocabulary originates. We know the 1951 Refugee Convention created universally recognisable language that countries use to talk about refugees, but where does the word ‘refugee’ come from?
As long as there has been war and conflict of belief, there have been people seeking safety. The English word ‘refugee’ has direct roots in the French réfugié, first noted in English contexts in the 17thcentury referring to an influx of Protestant French migrants across Europe, who were forced to flee their home country to escape religious persecution.
Before this word came to be, a place of safety was often referred to as a refuge, deriving from the classical Latin refugium –shelter or sanctuary, literally or figuratively. If you’ve studied medieval and early modern history, you may know that the act of seeking sanctuary in a religious house offered a person protection from their enemies. It was sacrilege to harm a person in sanctuary, which is why the murder of Saint Thomas Becket at Canterbury Cathedral in 1170 caused outrage in Europe.
’Refuge’ and ‘refugee’ have even deeper roots in the Latin fugere (to flee), as does fugitive, used as both a noun (a person who flees) and an adjective (fleeing, especially from arrest or pursuit). As the word became more commonly used in the English language, it also came to describe someone moving around, not necessarily in an urgent manner.
If you’d like to share what being a refugee means to you, you can submit your words to the UN Refugee Dictionary.
By Rachel Quin
Rachel Quin is a freelance marketer and copywriter with a love of language, books and cats.
All opinions expressed on this blog are those of the individual writers, and do not necessarily reflect the opinions or policies of Collins, or its parent company, HarperCollins.