Migrant vs. Refugee: What’s the Difference?

According to Oxford Dictionaries, the term refugee is defined as “a person who has been forced to leave their country in order to escape war, persecution, or natural disaster” while the term migrant refers to “a person who moves from one place to another in order to find work or better living conditions.” This simple distinction has been the subject of much controversy and confusion in the wake of the current global migration crisis and understanding the correct allocation of these terms is the first step to understanding the crisis in its entirety.

Refugees are a special class of migrants who under international law, deserve specific protection by their host state. According to Article 1 of the 1951 UN Convention, as modified by the 1967 Protocol, a refugee is defined as a person who ‘owing to well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country.’ This definition implies that several qualifying conditions apply to be considered a refugee: (1) presence outside home country; (2) well-founded fear of persecution (being at risk of harm is insufficient reason in the absence of discriminatory persecution); (3) incapacity to enjoy the protection of one’s own state from the persecution feared. The definition of refugees was actually intended to exclude internally displaced persons, economic migrants, victims of natural disasters, and persons fleeing violent conflict but not subject to discrimination amounting to persecution.

A refugee is not the same as an asylum-seeker. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) ‘an asylum-seeker is someone who says he or she is a refugee, but whose claim has not yet been definitively evaluated.’