Migrants or Refugees, the difference

Karen Connolly

04 September 2015

Over the past few weeks, the media has brought us the most harrowing reports of thousands of people fleeing war-torn Syria to Greece, risking their lives and those of their families in the process.

According to the UN Refugee Agency, approximately 2,500 people are said to have died this summer in attempting to cross the Mediterranean to Europe. The recent death of 3 year old Aylan Kurdi has highlighted the plight of Syrians in the most tragic of circumstances.

It has been noted that many different terms have been used in the media to define those people fleeing their homes in search of safety.   Many reports have referred to such people as ‘migrants’, others have called them ‘refugees’ or ‘asylum seekers’.

But is there a difference between a migrant, refugee or asylum seeker and if so, what is it?

Let’s look at each term individually:-

Who is a Refugee?

Put simply, a refugee is someone who has had to flee their home country out of fear or absolute necessity.  This could be because their country is in a state of war or political instability and it is not safe for them to live there.  It could also be because it is not safe for them to stay in their country due to their religion, beliefs, class, political opinion or even sexual orientation.

Refugees may be forced to flee their country with little or no warning, leaving their homes, belongings and even families and friends.   They have no protection given to them by their own country which makes them some of the most vulnerable people in society.

Once a person has been granted refugee status, they are protected by international law. The country  in which they were granted refugee status will offer them protection.  One of the most basic principles laid down in international law is that refugees should not be returned to situations where their life and freedom would be under threat.  They are given safe ‘refuge’ to live a peaceful and happy life in a new country.

Who is an Asylum Seeker?

A person who claims to be a refugee is not automatically considered to be one.   They must first have their claim evaluated by the government of the country they have fled to.

While the government are deciding on whether to grant a person refugee status, the person will be considered to be an ‘asylum seeker’ – i.e. someone who seeks safe refuge in the country but whose claim has not yet been fully decided upon yet.

Countries have specific responsibilities towards anyone seeking asylum on their territories or at their borders.  While their claim is being considered, asylum seekers will be able to remain in the country they have fled to without the risk of being sent back home.

Who is a Migrant?

A migrant is considered to be a person who chooses voluntarily to move to another country.   There can be many reasons why people move or ‘migrate’ from one country to another – perhaps for improved job prospects, better educational opportunities or maybe just simply to provide a better quality of life for their family.

Migrants decide when to leave their country, make plans of where to live, pack belongings and say goodbye to friends.   They have the opportunity to return to their home country if they wish to in the future.

Does the name really matter?

Whether a person is a migrant, an asylum seeker or a refugee depends very much on their particular circumstances.    In a nutshell however, the terms are not interchangeable.    The UN Refugee Agency states as follows:-

“We say ‘refugees’ when we mean people fleeing war or persecution across an international border.   And we say ‘migrants’ when we mean people moving for reasons not included in the legal definition of a refugee.   We hope that others will give thought to doing the same.   Choices about words do matter.”