‘The Refugee Dictionary’ unveiled to mark the 70th anniversary of the UN Refugee Convention


A dictionary defining only one word – refugee – has been unveiled to mark today’s 70th anniversary of the UN Refugee Convention, which the UK helped launch and ratify in 1951. Containing over 1,000 personal definitions submitted by members of the public, including faith leaders, local communities, high profile figures and refugees themselves, ‘The Refugee Dictionary’ demonstrates a strong sense of solidarity and helps to illustrate the stories, lives and contributions of refugees in the UK. The dictionary was created by the UN Refugee Agency’s UK charity partner, UK for UNHCR.

‘The Refugee Dictionary’ was today accessioned by the British Library for its Contemporary British Publications collection, as a record of the anniversary and a work commemorating the rich tapestry of stories and futures made possible because of this significant human rights convention. The Convention defined who a refugee is in law and set out the human rights of women, men and children fleeing the horrors of war and persecution to seek safety in another country.

Contributions have been made to the dictionary by a wide range of people, including Mevan Babakar, who was a refugee for five years as a child after fleeing the Gulf War; Lord Alf Dubs who fled Nazi Germany on the Kindertransport; the first female Syrian refugee pilot and UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador Maya Ghazal; the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Filippo Grandi; as well as a wide range of refugee university students.

Faith and community leaders including The Most Reverend Justin Welby, Archbishop of Canterbury, Andrew Copson, Chief Executive, Humanists UK, The Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis, Zara Mohammed, Secretary General of the Muslim Council of Britain, Cardinal Vincent Nichols, Archbishop of Westminster, and Jasvir Singh OBE also shared their definitions, alongside high profile supporters including Cate Blanchett, UNHCR Global Goodwill Ambassador and actor; David Morrissey, actor and UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador; Khaled Hosseini, novelist, former refugee from Afghanistan and UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador; actor Emma Thompson; lexicographer Susie Dent; actor, influencer and UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador Tanya Burr; broadcaster, author and UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador Anita Rani; and poet Harry Baker.

The inside pages of The Refugee Dictionary showcase a Kandahari embroidery pattern that was designed in a collaboration among Afghan refugee artisans, UNHCR’s social enterprise partner MADE51, Artisan Links and a UK designer, Tashi Goldring. This technique is an intricate form of needlework from the province of Kandahar, Afghanistan, which combines geometric shapes to create beautiful motifs.

These sit alongside hundreds of contributions from all across the UK. These heartfelt and personal submissions include:

A refugee is my grandmother Gizi, my Mother Margit, uncle Steve, aunts Magda and Gizi who were political refugees from Hungary during the 2nd World War when they arrived in United Kingdom. A refugee is human beings seeking valued peaceful lives and opportunity to contribute in society – Magdalena, Newport Pagnell

A refugee is a mother who planted her seeds of sacrifice, watered her seeds with hope and love, looked up as the shoots grew taller than her and beamed with pride as her sunflowers shone brighter than the sun – Salah, Nottingham

A refugee is a person or persons who flee from their homes in desperation and need a warm welcome to help them adjust to their new life – like the Asian family who fled Idi Armin’s Uganda. They arrived with just one small suitcase each, but in them they had gifts for us. We treasure these! – Anne, Stourbridge

A refugee is Dad – Jenny, Bedford

A refugee is the unexpected but joyful addition to my family. A surprise second son, enriching the lives beyond measure of my husband, my original son and daughter and the community of my extended family. A refugee is a gift of love – Jane, Lewes

Emma Cherniavsky, CEO of UK for UNHCR whose grandfather fled the Pale of Settlement, says: “This book contains a wonderful range of personal stories, memories, history, friendships, romances and families: many made possible only because of the Convention. It’s a very human reminder of the importance of protecting people fleeing war or persecution. The world has changed considerably since the Convention was drafted but it remains just as relevant today, if not more so. At a time when the principles of the Refugee Convention are under threat in some parts of the world, we hope that the UK’s tradition as a place of safety for refugees continues to stay strong.”

Mevan Babakar, trustee of UK for UNHCR and deputy CEO of Full Fact was a refugee for five years as a child after fleeing the Gulf War. She adds, “My earliest memories were coloured by the word “refugee”. I never quite understood what the word meant as we moved through borders on foot, by train or by plane. I didn’t understand why sometimes the word opened doors and we would be welcomed in, and other times it would close a door, and we would be cast out. The rich and varied lived experiences of people who are displaced are often reduced down to the single word “refugee”. At the heart of this book is a different message: no one is ever just a word, we are always a story.”

Ian Cooke, Head of Contemporary British Publications, British Library, who accessioned the book adds: “We are delighted to accept this unique work, written by the public. It commemorates a landmark in British history and reflects the modern day relationships and memories made possible because of the Convention. It is wonderful to think of the Refugee Dictionary finding its place amongst our collections, which document the diversity of expression and experience around the world, as well as the legal and intergovernmental co-operation and humanitarian effort that underpins the UNHCR.”

For the last 70 years, the UN Refugee Convention has helped to protect the millions of vulnerable people forced to flee their homes. Countries that have signed up to the Convention agree to protect refugees, but also to provide them with a series of rights including the right to work, to education and to a home, making a huge difference and allowing individuals and families to build a future.