This glossary is brief, plain, and practical introduction for occupational therapists who are exploring the legal, policy, political, and literature context relevant to human displacement.

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Acculturation. As two cultures interact, both the individual and the collective change as the relationship and use of the first and second culture are constantly being negotiated.  

Administrative detention. Civilians who are deprived of liberty, withought a criminal charge or conviction and subject to due legal process typically to control state borders and irregular migration. 

Authority. When the decisions of certain individuals and institutions are accepted voluntarily as right, and therefore to be obeyed. A significant source of policital power. Citizens need to question the legitimacy of authority recommending that cruelty is administered in their name.  

Arbitary detention. Civilians experience extrajudicial detention, without a charge with due legal process as prohibited by article 9 of Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) "no one shall be subjected to arbitrary arrest, detention or exile. 

Assimilation. When a person encounters a new culture and adopts the dominant culture, rejecting or supressing the first culture. The oposite acculturation strategy is separation, where a person clings exclusively to the first culture, rejecting any elements of the second dominant culture. Neither assimilation or separation are conducive to mental health.

Asylum. When the state grants protection to a persecuted person by permission to stay, reasonable treatment, and never returning a person to the country of danger.

Asylum seeker. When a person has applied for asylum, and is awaiting an outcome of refugee status determination. Every refugee was once an asylum seeker. Not all asylum seekers are refugees according to the UN Refugee Convention. 


Border. International law allows each nation-state to determine legal requirements to cross borders (check-points, airports, seaports etc). International laws about human rights.  

Boat person. Irregular migrants who travel by boat, typically because there are no safer alternative modes of transport. Term typically used to descibe people who are arriving to apply for asylum and engage protection obligations of UN Refugee Convention.


CALD. People with culturally & linguistically diverse (CALD) backgrounds face a range of barriers to equitable services. Occupational therapy code of ethics requires practitioners to develop competency to ensure CALD communities benefit from equitable service access and service outcomes. 

Civic defiance. Action that asserts nonviolent protest, resistance or intervention for a political purpose.

Civil society. Also known as the third sector, as distinct from government and business, where citizens collectively progress common interests, building social capital between citizens that also enables them to better keep governments accountable. 

"Climate refugee" people displaced by climate change do not fall within the UN Refugee Convention but also experience similar occuaptional needs and have the same occupational rights. See "People on the move in a changing climate: A bibliography" published by International Organisation for Migration (IOM) in 2012 here for the latest research. Also see the 2011 IOM publication "The state of environmental migration" here

Complimentary protection. People who face grave danger or abuse, but don't fit the refugee definition of the Refugee Convention, can be offered protection under other human rights treaty and norms.

Conflict transformation. Conflict is inevitable, violence is not. Sustained engagement can harness the energy of a conflict to address underlying disparities. This is one way conflict can be transformed into constructive social outcomes rather than allowing them to deepen social divisions and fuel protracted violence.

Cultural identity. The way people identify with the beliefs and behaviour of social groups is layered and complex. Whilst cultural identity can be a source of information and a resource in practice, we can't assume that cultural identity equals country of birth or language spoken, particularly in context of working with people who have been displaced.


De facto stateless. A person who has a nationality but the state is ineffective; unwilling or unable to protect them.  

Derivative status. When spouse and dependents are protected as refugees on the basis that article 16 of Universal Declaration of Human Rights protect the family unit as the basis of society. In the global south, derivative refugee status grants a family the right to be warehoused. In the global north family reunification is often difficult and delayed.

Detention. Person deprived of liberty aside from conviction for an offence.  

Diaspora. People groups scattered or settled away from their ancestral homeland. Participation in daily life roles and community may be influenced by kinship obligations or remittances being sent beyond the person's immediate community.

Dialogue. Open and respectful exchange with people who have different views, cultures, and world views. Because the aim is understanding not agreement, dialogue grounded in reciprocal relationships between equals can be bold and create a stimulating shared space for critical reflection, understanding and new expressions of culture.  

Disaster-induced displacement. Disasters resulting in displacement may be hydrological (eg floods, wet mass movements), meterorological (eg storms), climatological (eg extreme temperatures, droughts, wildfires) or geophysical (eg earthquakes/tsunami, volcano, dry mass movement). People displaced by disaster fall outside the legal frameworks protecting refugees, but share some occupational elements of displacement which shape health. 

Discrimination. When attitudes, policy, or practice knowingly excludes people from full participation and benefits based on some difference or predjudice.

Diversity. Difference may be race, religion, ethnicity, gender, social status, ability, political views and so on. Diversity is important to humans as biodiversity is to the planet. Diversity is a fact of life. But whether it's harnessed through dialogue as a constructive energy for sustainable development and peace can not be left to chance.

Durable solution. Any arrangement that allows refugees permanent protection allowing them to resume normal life. Traditionally avenues include: voluntarily returning home when it's safe (repatriation), joining the host society as a citizen (integration), being settled into a third country (resttlement). All three are politically mediated options. 

Duty bearer. Obligations to respect, protect, and fulfil human rights. Often used to describe relationship of government's duty to her citizens who are rights bearers.


EAL. English as additional language. This acknowledges that for many, it is a third, fourth, fifth language.

Elders. The World Health Organisation classifies older people as 60+ years of age. In displacement, consideration must be given to life expectancy of the population and other contextual variables.

Encampment. A refugee camp that is literally enclosed with a fence. People don't have freedom of movement to integrate with host society.

Enculturation. People from birth are developing the life-skills to survive and thrive in their culture and context.

Engagement. Efforts to understand and involve stakeholders and their concerns in our activities and decision-making processes.

ExCom. Executive Committee of the High Commissioners Program provides advice to the Comissioner for Refugees, and conclusions that are not legally binding but are accepted norms in understanding and application of current international law.


Family Unity Principle. Article 16 in the United Declaration of Human Rights protects the family as the fundamental unit of society. So the spouse and dependents can be granted derivative refugee status in the global South. The global North is less inclined to do so.

Forced Migration. There is something compelling someone to flee their home for safety or a person has been coerced against their will to migrate.


Generalised violence. Refers to random widespread violence that affects everyone. Often used to contact between a person having a specific well founded fear of persecution. The Refugee Convention was written post-WWII so they didn't account for civil war and the reality that violence can indeed be widespread and targeted.


Human security. People-centred approach to security that recognises the links between freedom from want and freedom from fear and an individual's security. By contrast, state-centric security uses the military to respond to external threats without addressing root causes.

Human security recognises security and threats across seven domains: economic (assured income from work and social safety net), food (food is physically and economically accessible to all), health (protection from basic diseases), environment (disaster, pollution, climate change), personal (safe from persecution and violence), community (safe from ethnic and sectarian violence) and political (state respects human rights).

Human trafficking. People enslaved into forced labour, often migrating against their will across a border. 

Humanitarian. Humanity, neutrality, and impartiality are the cornerstones which preserve the "humanitarian space" allowing access to affected populations to provide emergency relief to preserve life. Durable solutions for the displaced populations are politically negotiated, so it's important to understand the purpose and limitations of humanitarian approaches. 


Imprisonment. A person deprived of liberty as a result of being convicted with an offence (note, seeking asylum is not illegal) Body of principles for the protection for all persons under any form under detention or imprisonment (1988)

Integration. A bi-cultural approach to acculturation when faced with a new culture, drawing on elements of both the first and dominant culture. Integration involves two cultural identities used to support occupational and mental health outcomes.

Internally displaced person (IDP). Displaced from home, but has not crossed a border. Initially not included in UNHCR's mandate, but now are.

International Law. The rules adopted (by norms and/or by specific consent) that govern relationships and expectations between countries.





Multiculturalism. More than having diverse cultural and linguistic backgrounds co-existing in a country. It's about exchange and participation that reaps rewards as individuals and as a nation. 


Nation. A socio-cultural entity formed by a group of people identifying with a shared culture, language, heritage.

National. A citizen of a nation-state. 

Nation-State. A nation of people with a state as the legal and political entity governing a population, a territory, a system of government, and relatinoships with other states.

Non-derogable rights. Many human rights are a work-in-progress as countries mobilise resources required, however states are expected to respect immediately, fully, and without exception: right to life, right to be from torture, cruel, or degrading treatment or punishment, freedom from slavery and servitude, and freedom of thought, conscience and religion.  

Non-refoulement. A principle in refugee law, now a part of international customary law (binding on all states whether or not they have signed the UN Refugee Conention) meaning a state can't return a person to a country where their life anf freedom is threatened.

Non-violent struggle. Waging war with the way things are with non-violent actions as weapons used for political change.


Occupational adaptation. People engage in occupations situated in their environemnet in order to meet their desire for competence, and in order to meet the demands of the environment. People become ill, injured, disabled as the demands of the environment exceed their occupational adaptation to the environment. This understanding is important for occupational therapists who work with refugees and asylum seekers whose daily occupations have been shaped by adapting to war and persecution, and then find themselves in a radically new environment demanding significant occupational adaptation.


Pathologizing. There is nothing inherently defective about displaced populations. Pathologizing and problematizing overshadows our shared humanity, and hides our sense of vulnerability.

Peace. More than the absence of overt conflict. Fragile peace is maintained by the opression and repression of some people's human rights, which results in undercurrents of latent conflict.

People of concern. The people whose situations fall under the mandate of the UNHCR to assist.

People smuggling. Moving people across borders without a visa in exchange for a payment. People may be exploited in this process, but there is no ultimate purpose of ongoing exploitation for profit. (Although, in reality some trafficking begins as smuggling, and a person is subsequently controlled and coerced for purpose of profitable slavery.) People smuggling is regarded as a crime against the State interest in borders.

Protected chatacteristics. Discrimination is against international law when based on protected characteristics: race, colour, ethnicity, descent, sex, pregnancy, maternity, civil, family or carer status, language, religion or belief, political or other opinion, birth, national or social origin, nationality, economic status, association with a national minority, sexual orientation, gender identity, age, disability, health status, genetic of predisposition towards illness. And it's just mean. 

PRS. Protracted refugee situation.



Racism. Discriminating according to ethcnic and ancestral heritage. Racism can be seen in what is done, and also what is not done. Racism can be experienced by a inter-personal or structural situation. 

Reciprocity. Relationship where both contribute and both benefit. Promoting reciprocity in practice is one way to affirm the agency of the people we work with. 

Remittance. Resources sent to loved ones and kin in home culture.

Refugee Convention. States voluntarily sign a committmenet to the international law that governs how to respond when displaced people seek asylum. 

Rights holder. Ever human being has rights. Working with displaced people is not a matter of charity, rather supporting their ability to demand and experience the rights they are entitled to as a human being. 


Serco. Multinational business profiting from trend of governments to outsource prisons, detention, deportations warranting civil vigilance.

Sources of power. Human resources, skills & knowledge, intangible factors, material resources, sanctions are origins of political power. This power can be strengthened or underminded according to the degree individuals and institutions in society accept, obey, and cooperate.  

Sovreignty. That states can do what they like within their borders and to their citizens without interference from others. There have been legal instruments developed for the international communitie's  "Responsibility to Protect" when state-sanctioned violence is widespread. The Refugee Convention is a way of voluntarily putting conditions on state sovereignity by saying that people can cross borders without punishment for the purpose of seeking asylum, and those claims will be assessed according to the law. 


Torture. Intentional violence (e.g. physical pain, psychological devestation, social alientation) used to serve a purpose, not primarily to kill. For example, releasing back to the community a leading dissedent who is physically alive but whose personality, mental health, occupational performance, and social standing is destroyed makes this person is a living witness to the community, and functions as a cost-effective method of social and political control. 

Trafficking. Recruiting and moving people within or between countries for purpose of profiting from their slavery and exploitation. May use deception, force, kidnapping, control of passports, debt, threat to family to trap victims. Poverty, lack of opportunity, civil conflict, gender inequalities and gender-based violence in the countries of origin renders children and adults vulnerable to being traffiked. Growth of the sex industry and the demand for cheap labour and products maintain the industry.

Treaty. A convention that creates legally binding obligations to state parties who have signed up (ratification and accession of the treaty). See what your country is a party to at UN Treaty Watch. 


Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). Article 16 includes the right to seek and enjoy asylum from persecution.

United Nations (UN). The United Nations is the primary international organisation, formed after World War II as a platform for dialogue, with a broad mandate to strengthen international peace and development. 

UNESCO. United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organisation. After the World War II, a key part of the UNESCO brief is "building peace in the minds of men and women".

UNHCR. United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

Unacompanied minor (UM). Children are not legally independent till the age of 18 in the Convention of the Rights of a Child. Displaced minors may become unacompanied for many reasons. Families may be forcibly separated in crisis. Families may separate during flight with the hope of increasing survival chances. Families may protect youth from being abducted into sexual or military slavery. Children may have been orphaned by natural circumstance or conflict. 

Urban displacement. Approximately 50% of the worlds forced migration results in people living in urban environments. They are entitled to humanitarian assistance, which is complex to deliver in terms of access and identifying displaced people amidst the most vulnerable members of the host community including rural to city migrants. 


Violence. Whether it is threatened harm or actual harm, violence is intentional. It can be direct violence to individuals, stuctural violence against entire groups, or cultural violence where culture is co-opted to legitimise violence. Aside from obvious death, disability, injury, violence can often exact a hidden toll as a physical, psychological, and social burden. By the time people flee their homeland, they have typically experienced or witnessed significant violence.


Well-founded fear of persecution. Term specific to the UN Refugee Convention which means a subjective fear with an objective basis that is specifically and personally linked to race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership of a particular social group.

Welcome. A large measure of a gift is the spirit in which it is given. A tolerant and inclusive welcome is basis for social dividends as people are able to feel safe, acquire skills, and contribute to the community faster.

WFOT. World Federation of Occupational Therapy.


Xenophobia. A fear and hatred of "outsiders" and cultural or linguistic elements seen as "alien", often with an uncritical exaltation of one culture and dehumanising another. 



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