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How to not become a refugee

Stephane Tajick

Last updated: July 9, 2019



The title of this article might seem a little insensitive but I couldn’t find any other way to phrase it. Besides, after you read this you might realise that this small guide is actually quite helpful toward refugees seeking guidance. No one wants to be refugee; no one wants to be in a situation where he has to leave his country behind. Currently there are over 23 million refugees in the world, and that number fluctuate over time based on the conflict and displacements of populations. But it’s hardly a new situation: displacement of populations has occurred throughout human history, and the movement of people fleeing conflict or persecution is unfortunately a reality. What has changed is that in the last few decades, more and more countries are providing legal status to people seeking asylum. A century ago, an Italian fleeing the unification war in Italy would just cross the border into France and work a low-paying job. They would be ill-treated and live without real legal status in France. What has changed is that developed countries have placed more value on human life and how a human being deserves to be treated. This has opened the way for more humanitarian values and policies. That said, travelling illegally to Europe to seek refugee status is the best way to lose five years of your life in limbo and on the street if you are lucky enough to make it through the voyage. Being a smart refugee takes planning; obviously, the more money you have, the more options are available to you.

A country doesn’t fall apart in one day. You usually feel tension in the air for months or years. You know that there is a high probability that something could happen that could threaten your life and that of your family. A lot of people discard those signs as “It’s always like that, but nothing happens.” They are right more often than not, but it’s not about who is going to win the coin toss; it’s about what you have to lose if it happens and how much you are willing to invest in mitigating that risk. If I was to tell you that a few small steps can make a huge difference in how you are going to live the next decade, you should listen.

1.      Prepare documents

If you want to apply for residence in a country, there are general documents that are always needed. If you have those documents, you might not need to fall into the refugee category. You can apply for a work permit or other type of temporary residence. The process can be fast and you will be able to bring your close family with you. The following documents are needed for all the members of the family:

  • A valid passport. You are usually able to renew your passport on its last year of validity. A foreign country will not issue a residence permit with a validity beyond your passport validity, meaning if your passport is expiring in June 2020, the resident permit cannot be valid beyond that date. Preferably renew all your passports of your family members at the same time as soon as you feel things are getting riskier.
  • An official birth certificate will always be asked for when you’re applying for a residence permit anywhere. You need to obtain an original from the government; most countries will ask you for that.
  • A police certificate is the trickiest document to You are usually required to produce a police certificate from countries you have lived in for over six months beyond the ages 16 or 18 years old. Hopefully for you it’s only one country and you just need to go to any police station. This document will need to be reobtained every six months to be safe as the validity of a police certificate expires between six months and one year depending on the country you are applying in. You will need to get a copy for every member of your family above the age of 16 to be sure. If you have lived abroad you can go to your nearest embassy and request the police certificate. You can also do that at any of their embassies, even outside your own country.
  • Get your diplomas and professional degrees. It will help you qualify for temporary worker permits in many countries. If you have children, getting their school transcripts will help you to register them into a new school rapidly. You should be able to get that from their current school or university.

Some other documents might be required of you, but you can most likely be able to obtain them outside your country, such as photos and translations.

2.      Getting out safely

The sooner you leave, the better. If you leave it late, you might be confronted with a closed airport, closed train stations and roadblocks. If you are in the capital, the risk can be high as the end battle for power is there.

If you can fly: know where you can stay for at least a month without a visa. You can use our visa policy map to find all the visa-free destinations for every passport in the world.

If you can’t fly: know the visa policy of the neighboring countries and how to get there. It’s better to get there fast before they close that border.

Don’t look to go to your dream country right away; instead, find the easiest route out.

3.      Two-step process

The biggest mistake a refugee can make is to try to get into the best country possible from the start. If you weren’t qualified to get approved as economic immigrant in those countries, it’s going to be a lot harder to get in as refugee now that there are millions like you. Countries like Canada, Australia and New Zealand tend to get the best refugees: the doctors, the engineers, etc. If you are a 20-year-old male with no education, sadly most of the doors are closed unless you are gay and at risk of death in your country. Anyhow, it’s not a good idea to rest on that refugee application to Canada while you wait in a refugee camp at the border – you might be there for a while. This is why I always suggest that people rebound to another country first, before applying to that shiny country they always dreamed of raising their family in. The smartest move is to stay in a country where you can make a living while you wait to immigrate to a better country. The best solution would actually be a step down (not up) and somewhere that you speak the language. You have the documents we listed above and the process is going to be fast. There are also countries that are pretty open to the world and give visa-on-arrival to everyone. In Mauritania, you can get a visa for up to 5 years on arrival. It’s not the most advanced country in the world, but you might be able to make a living in it before applying for immigration to a country with a high standard of living. Most importantly, you won’t be in limbo and lose many years of your life.

4.      Rainy day fund

Some people are too poor to be able to put money aside, but if you can, you should. When you are living in a third-world country, chances are that in your lifetime, you will see a military coup or civil unrest. How that affects you depends on a few things, but the general rule is the richer you were in the previous regime, the more likely you are to be a victim in the next one. And to put it simply, where are you going to go with no money? When you live in a country that is prone to instability, you should consider putting money aside for this “rainy-day fund”. This should be in a stable currency such as USD, gold or diamonds. Preferably something that:

  • Can be turned into currency
  • Holds its value and doesn’t depreciate
  • Doesn’t take too much space
  • Can be hidden easily

The best scenario is to open a bank account abroad somewhere relatively stable and send money to that account regularly.

Start planning now

From riches to rags is the likely scenario of wealthy people becoming refugees. Even if you are part of the middle class you should start making your life-saving plan. Today there are many paths towards obtaining residence and even citizenship across the world. Even if you don’t believe your country can fall into civil war, you should take steps to secure your future and that of your family. If you are Iranian, for example, you can get residence in Turkey if you own a property; that amount doesn’t need to be high. You can even get Turkish citizenship by investment by buying a property for at least USD 250,000. Residence and citizenship planning has been booming the last decade with many paths now available to those that have a bit of money. Even if you don’t have that much, you can start planning on the right path for you.


Read also: The difference between temporary residence and permanent residence


The smartest way to be a refugee is not to be one. I know this is not fair to everyone, as not everyone has the resources to follow the steps I’ve laid out above, but if you are reading this, you most likely have the minimum to do so. Be smart, plan in advance, and don’t take too many risks with your security and that of your family. If you have a bit of money, you really don’t have any excuse not to prepare.

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