Who should be recognized as a refugee? This article seeks to uncover the normative arguments at the core of legal and philosophical conceptions of refugeehood. It identifies three analytically distinct approaches grounding the right to refugee status and argues that all three are normatively inadequate. Refugee status should neither be grounded in individual persecution for specific reasons (classical approach) nor in individual persecution for any discriminatory reasons (human rights approach). It should also not be based solely on harm (humanitarian approach). Rather, this article argues, it should be based on political oppression – on persons lacking public autonomy, formally expressed as a lack of legal–political status. The normative foundation for a claim to refugee status lies in the inability of a person to control, amend and seek recourse to the specific situation she faces. It lies in the lack of public autonomy expressed as a lack of legal–political rights. What matters for a claim to refugee status is thus the legal–political disenfranchisement of a person, ultimately leaving her with no recourse to the particular situation she faces other than flight. Refugees, then, are not only those who fear harm or persecution, but those who are politically oppressed.