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Under international law, a refugee is a person who is outside his/her country of nationality or habitual residence; has a well-founded fear of persecution because of his/her race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group or political opinion; and is unable or unwilling to avail himself/herself of the protection of that country, or to return there, for fear of persecution. They are distinguished from economic migrants who have voluntarily left their country of origin for economic reasons.

Those who seek refugee status are sometimes known as asylum seekers and the practice of accepting such refugees is that of offering political asylum. Some governments are relatively tolerant and accepting of asylum claims; other governments will not only refuse such claims, but may actually arrest those who attempt to seek asylum. The most common such claims are based upon political and religious grounds.

In the world, about 10 countries take quota refugees for example from refugee camps. Usually they are people who escape war. They are then quota refugees. In late years, most of quota refugees have came from Iran, Iraq and former Yugoslavia.

Under the 1951 Convention on Refugees and 1967 Protocol, a nation must grant asylum to refugees and cannot forcibly return a refugee to their nation of origin. Refugees are also the subject of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). Many nations routinely ignore this treaty.

Palestinian refugees from 1948 and their descendants do not come under the 1951 convention or UNHCR, but under the earlier UNRWA agency. As such they are defined differently; see Palestinian refugee.

For boat people, see Vietnam War.