Millions of refugees exist with limited legal and social protection because of a prevailing system that fails to recognize why some people are driven to flee their home countries and cross borders under unusual circumstances.

Traditionally, people who cross borders undocumented are identified to belong under only two groups – refugees and voluntary economic migrants, said Oxford fellow Alexander Betts.

The United Nations Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees gives this definition: "A person 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 or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country; or who, not having a nationality and being outside the country of his former habitual residence as a result of such events, is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to return to it."

Betts argued, however, that such distinction – which originates from the need to protect Holocaust victims in Europe after the war – is so narrowly defined, it overlooks diverse reasons for migration.

"Survival migration – or people leaving their country of origin because of an existential threat to which they have no domestic remedy – occurs for reasons other than individualized persecution," Betts said on Oxford's Global Economic Governance blog.

What prompts survival migration? Betts cited state collapse, generalized violence, severe environmental distress, widespread livelihood collapse, global economic meltdown and even climate change. But are these enough to obtain refugee status and protection? No, unless one is explicitly fleeing violence and persecution.

Broadening the coverage of the term refugee would, however, have the downside of eroding the rights of asylum seekers or forcing states to draw up new laws, Katie Nguyen wrote for Alertnet.

Betts called attention to the situation in Zimbabwe from which 3 million to 4 million people escape a collapsed state to neighboring countries such as South Africa. Only a fraction of them are recognized as refugees and the rest are forced to fend for themselves under tough conditions that result in "shocking human consequences," Betts said.

South Africa is slowly adapting to new challenges. According to Betts, the state has decided to stop deporting Zimbabweans and provide a permit that will give them access to basic services for six months. It is a start for a new national legal system.

But how about an international one?

"The world does not resemble the Europe of 1951 and neither should its protection framework," Betts said.

About the author

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    Josefa Cagoco

    Sef Cagoco served as one of Devex's international development correspondent from mid-2008 to mid-2009. Her writing focused on social entrepreneurship and multilateral agencies such as the U.N. and Asian Development Bank. She previously worked as senior reporter for the national daily BusinessWorld and a production journalist for the Financial Times.