“I call no place home,” says Hawas, an Iraqi man who was forced to flee his home in Zummar, Iraq because of the conflict in his country.

After staying in his home town was no longer a safe option, Hawas made the dangerous 60 mile journey with his family to Kharabe Babke village in search of a safer place. He doesn’t view Kharabe Babke as his home, but cannot return to Zummar.

“I won’t return to Zummar,” Hawas says. “There are no services there—no water, no power, no security. It’s still unsafe. And I don’t call Kharabe Babke home either because I can’t find a job. There’s no stability in my life.”

Like Hawas, 70.8 million people across the world have been forced to flee their homes because of conflict, persecution, extreme poverty, or natural disasters. Yet, each situation is unique. Some people are classified as refugees, some as internally displaced persons, and others as asylum seekers.

But what do each of these terms really mean? Let’s take a look:


A refugee is an individual who fled their home country because of violence or persecution and has crossed an international border in order to find safety. Refugees are protected by the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) which ensures refugees hold the same social and economic rights as any foreigner or resident in their host country.[1]

When a refugee first crosses an international border, they are registered with the local government or with the United Nations as an asylum seeker and must apply for refugee status in that nation. Therefore, every refugee is first an asylum seeker, but not every asylum seeker will be legally granted refugee status.

Asylum Seeker

An asylum seeker is any person seeking international protection after fleeing their home country. They can apply for refugee status, but must wait for their claim to be accepted before they are recognized as a refugee in their host country.[2]

Internally Displaced Person (IDP)

Not everyone who is forced to leave their home finds refuge outside their country’s borders. Internal displacement can be caused by a variety of reasons, including natural disasters and armed conflicts. However, internally displaced persons (IDPs) do not cross an internationally recognized border, instead they move within their own country.

In many instances, refugees and internally displaced persons face the same challenges: lack of basic services; no safe place to call home; and family separation. However, the key difference is that IDPs are not granted the same rights as refugees under international law. So, while it may seem like a better solution to remain closer to home in one’s own country, often the reality is much more complex.

State sovereignty means each country is ultimately responsible for protecting and assisting its citizens in need. Therefore, countries are responsible for meeting IDP’s needs, making them ineligible to receive outside humanitarian assistance through UNHCR.

However, ongoing conflict strips governments of vital resources. Governments may desire to help their affected populations, but are often incapable of doing so because of the magnitude of need and limited capacity to provide the right aid to those affected.

This is where international humanitarian organizations like Medair come in. We have the right to help meet the urgent needs of refugees and internally displaced persons alike.

Deepen your understanding with "Refugee Box"

This useful toolkit contains a 45-minute, card-based activity that can easily be set up around the kitchen table, in small groups, or in a classroom.

Through stories, videos and role playing, “Refugee Box” helps participants of all ages develop a deeper understanding and empathy for the refugee experience and how they can help.

[1] UNHCR Protecting Refugees

[2] UNHCR Glossary of Terms