Who can identify as a refugee is determined by each government; it is an arbitrary decision.That is why I did not require the women I interview to have official refugee status under the US government. Under US law a refugee is:
A person outside his or her country of nationality who is unable or unwilling to return to his or her country of nationality because of persecution or a well-founded fear of persecution on account of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion. (U.S Department of Homeland Security, www.dhs.gov)
This definition excludes large groups of people. Personally, I believe the US government's definition is too narrow; I associate the term refugees with involuntary migrants. Involuntary migrants are those who are forced out of their countries by unsafe conditions. These conditions can include persecution, but it also includes many other things like: domestic abuse, poverty, oppressive and corrupt governments, natural disasters, violent conflict, and lack of reliable education. Voluntary migrants are those who have a relatively stable living environment with some opportunities available, but they decide to migrate to pursue something more.
The distinction between migrant and refugee should be a spectrum; it is hard to define and everyone's situation is different. In Immigrant America, Alejandro Portes and Ruben G. Rumbaut summarize this concept. They state:
Typically, the distinction hinges on the notion of refugees as involuntary and relatively unprepared migrants “pushed out” by coercive political conditions or by an “exposure to disaster,” versus immigrants as voluntary and better-prepared movers “pulled in” by perceived opportunities for economic advancement or family reunification.34 The distinction is actually more elusive than this definition suggests. So-called voluntary migrations are not always as voluntary and planned as described, and there are wide differences in the degree of urgency, suddenness, and “acute flight” experiences of different refugee groups. In addition, as seen in chapter 2, “refugee” is not a self-assigned label but one assigned by the host government. Thus, two groups subject to similar conditions of stressful flight may be defined differently on arrival, one sanctioned and granted the status of bona fide “political” refugees and the other unsanctioned and labeled “clandestine” economic immigrants. Differential labeling by the federal government has marked, for example, the divergent official receptions and subsequent adaptation experiences of Southeast Asian boat people, on the one hand, and Central American escapees, on the other.35
Chambers also shares a good explanation of this concept in Somalis in the Twin Cities and Columbus.
Difference between refugee and immigrant according to Ahmed Samatar, a Somali Scholar:
“A refugee … is an individual who is unable to find a modicum of shelter and safety in his/her homeland or decides that what is available is so unappealing and unappetizing that becoming a brittle, and at times unwanted foreigner is a preferable fate. The category of immigrant is designated to describe one who has made an autonomous and personal choice of “creative destruction” to seek membership in another society—an act that can be either temporary or could culminate in new citizenship”.
Chambers, pages 16-17
It is especially important to revise the definition of refugee for women. Indra expounds on this in her study, “Gender: A Key Dimension of the Refugee Experience”, for Refuge: Canada’s Journal on Refugees. She writes:
Women sometimes have a lower probability of achieving refugee status because the key criteria for being a refugee are drawn primarily from the realm of public sphere activities dominated by men. With regard to private sphere activities where women's presence is more strongly felt, there is primarily silence - silence compounded by an unconscious calculus that assigns the critical quality "political" to many public activities but few private ones. Thus, state oppression of a religious minority is political, while gender oppression at home is not. In addition, "oppression" itself has strong gender implications: physical violence, cultural, political, and religious intolerance all have their distinctly genderized consequences.
Indra, page 3
In summation, I consider any person displaced from their home to be a refugee.