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What is the definition of a refugee?

Refugees, as defined in the 1951 United Nations Refugee Convention are individuals who have fled their home and country, owing to a well-founded fear of persecution because of their race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social groups, or political opinions.

Refugees are amongst the most vulnerable people in the world. The UN's 1951 Refugee Convention and its 1967 Protocol help to protect them. According to their provisions, refugees deserve, at a minimum, the same standards of treatment enjoyed by the nationals who are citizens of the countries in which they seek refuge.


Refugee Week, coordinated by the Refugee Council of Australia (RCOA), is Australia's peak annual activity to inform the public about refugees and to celebrate and acknowledge the positive contributions that they have made to Australian society. The first Refugee Week events were organised in 1986 by Austcare, over in Sydney. The Refugee Council of Australia became a co-organiser of the event in 1987, and it became a national event the following year.

Each year, Refugee Week is held from the Sunday through to the following Saturday of the week in which World Refugee Day (June 20) falls. 

During  the 1980s, Major-General Paul Cullen (the foundation president of both Austcare and RCOA), began to lobby for the establishment of an annual international celebration of the contributions that refugees have made. His goal was achieved in December 2000, when the United Nations General Assembly established World Refugee Day through resolution 55/76. This resolution aims to raise awareness of the increasing volume of refugees worldwide. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) subsequently coordinated the first ever World Refugee Day on June 20, 2001 and this date has been retained ever since. World Refugee Day celebrates the strength and courage of individuals who have been forced to flee their home country to escape conflict or persecution, and aims to commend and recognise the tenacity and resilience in rebuilding their lives and starting anew.

Refugee or Asylum Seeker? What is the difference?

An asylum seeker is a person looking for protection because they fear persecution, or have experienced violence or human rights violations. A refugee is a person who asked for protection and was granted refugee status. They have resettled in a new country, or are waiting for resettlement. Every refugee starts as an asylum seeker.


The theme of Refugee Week from 2023-2025 is 'finding freedom'. Allocating a theme to Refugee Week serves a number of important functions:

  • raising awareness of the issues affecting refugees, and allowing the broader community to understand aspects of the refugee experience
  • allowing Refugee Week to be a national celebration that everyone can organise events for and partake in
  • promoting harmony and togetherness - the week is intended to unite individuals, communities and organisations from many different backgrounds, highlighting that regardless of our differences, we all share a common humanity
  • broadening the impact of Refugee Week by providing a common, cohesive message which can be promoted around the country and maximise the effectiveness of awareness-raising activities.

Freedom means different things for many different people, including those who aren't refugees. To some, it can mean living without the fear of exposure to war and conflict. For others, it can mean having their basic human rights upheld. For some, it can mean a new career. This week emphasises to us that freedom should be a way of life for everyone.

RCOA encourages all of us to explore relevant resources to remain educated, get involved in Refugee Week, and celebrate the contributions of refugees worldwide to society. 

Further resources

Tips on how to get involved in Refugee Week at an individual level

Calendar of Refugee Week events

Comprehensive guide on hosting Refugee Week events and understanding its history

Resources for event organisers and educational purposes

Lived experiences and stories of freedom

Personal stories from refugees

Page reviewed 20 October 2020