In the present humanitarian and political crisis over refugees from Syria and Iraq, the term "refugee" is used to describe different people on the run from their countries. However, there are at least three different variants on this word, and keeping them straight will help in any discussion of refugees.
First, a refugee is someone fleeing for their lives from their own country. You may remember that during the Katrina hurricane, we heard about refugees from New Orleans. Actually, they were not refugees, but rather "displaced people" because they were still in their own country. There are now millions of refugees fleeing from the violence in Syria and Iraq, and they are rushing across international borders.
Second, many of the refugees in this first category, but not all of them, will qualify for refugee status from the United Nations. From the website for UNHCR we find this: The 1951 Refugee Convention spells out that a refugee is someone who
"owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race,
religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or
political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality, and is
unable to, or owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the
protection of that country." Sometimes, people flee from their own countries, but if they do not fit this definition, they do not receive this status from the UN.
Third, only people who have refugee status according to the UN can be considered to be refugees who come to the United States. Refugee status in the United States is very difficult to achieve and requires a complex vetting process from the FBI, State Department, and Homeland Security. People from all of these three categories are worthy of our prayers, but most of us will ever get to meet only people from the third category.