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What Makes a Refugee?

In this Friday, June 20, 2014 photo, a Honduran migrant and her daughter are heading to the U.S. through Chiapas, Mexico.

In this Friday, June 20, 2014 photo, a Honduran migrant and her daughter are heading to the U.S. through Chiapas, Mexico.

Thousands of children have traveled to the United States from Central America without one or both parents. Officials are struggling to deal with the situation. The growing number of arrivals has led to a debate over whether or not they can stay. That will largely depend on whether the U.S. government considers the children refugees. But what helps officials decide who is a refugee?

More than 21,000 children arrived last year without their parents from three nations: El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras. That information comes from a recent United Nations report. Almost 19,000 other girls and boys came from Mexico. This year, the numbers have continued to grow.

Anna Greene works for the International Rescue Committee. She says parents are sending their children to the United States because of extreme poverty and violent crime.

“The children that are fleeing violence and who would be in harm’s way if they returned, those are children who would likely qualify for protection here in the United States. But not all would.”

Individuals who seek to leave property behind for a better life in another country are often called “economic migrants.” They are not forced from their homes as refugees are.

If someone seeking asylum is found not to be a refugee, then he or she can be returned to their home country. But who exactly is considered a refugee?

Jane Mason with the U.N. refugee agency says there are five justifications.

“There are five grounds, and it has to be linked to persecution – race, religion, your ethnic or national background, a political opinion that you hold, or membership in a particular social group.”

She adds that the United Nations sometimes identifies whole groups of people as refugees. Examples are those who flee the war in Syria or conflicts in Africa.

So does a government have a different responsibility to a refugee fleeing poverty than it does to one fleeing war?

Anna Greene of the International Rescue Committee says the answer is no.

“It looks different, but the protection principles are exactly the same. Including the fact that every child who is unaccompanied, regardless of why they may have left, needs certain types of protection that adults don’t.”

Jane Mason has examined the U.S. border case. She says it is important that undocumented migrants be given the chance to tell their story and go through the asylum process.

“International law says that if someone could be a refugee, you basically have to give them the benefit of the doubt and not send them back.”

The experts say the way to reduce the number of children and other asylum-seekers is to understand what is causing them to make the trip in the first place. I’m Caty Weaver.

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