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Migration Terms

by Sayan Das
June 12, 2019

Sayan Das is a writer and human rights advocate focused on refugees and gender.

In June 2018, the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) released its annual Global Trends Study. The report stated that 68.5 million people across the world were displaced. Of these 25.4 million were refugees, 40 million were internally displaced people, and 3.1 million were seeking asylum. While all these people when taken together are displaced, there remain several degrees of separation among them. Additionally, given the day’s many migration stories, terms such as migrant, immigrant, refugee, and internally displaced people are all found together making readers rather confused.

Below, a readers digest of all the terms regularly being deployed by the media to make them more evident as migration stories continue to shape global politics and economics.


A refugee is one who is fleeing persecution or conflict.

These people need international protection and cannot return home. The 1951 United Nations Convention defines the term refugee and along with the 1967 Protocol provides rights for this class of people. Signatory countries must adhere to these documents while assisting refugees. Among the many global rights that refugees have, the most important one remains non-refoulement, i.e. that refugees cannot be expelled or returned back home where their lives and freedoms are under threat.

The UNHCR decides on the status of the refugee based on the dictum “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”. Using the legal process of Refugee Status Determination (RSD), the UNHCR and local government authorities determine if the person who has sought protection is a refugee. RSD has no single unifying format and is complicated.

UNHCR will step in to determine refugee status when governments do not step up.


A migrant is a person who moves between or among nations or within the borders of their own country.  

The International Organisation of Migration (IOM) estimates that there were 258 million international migrants in 2017. The organisation estimates 740 million migrants move internally within their countries, a rather conservative figure. People become migrants when they seek work or an education. Migrants from the third world countries need visas to enter other countries, most notably countries within the European Union. However, having the right to enter a certain nation does not give them the right to social and economic benefits. However, there are pathways to citizenship and settlement for migrants. Today, migrants are seen as those who come to countries for short-term stay or the foreign population who reside within a country even when they become citizens.

The Difference Between A Migrant and A Refugee: This is a grey area.

What differentiates migrants from refugees is that migrants can always return home and the motive behind their movement is to seek better opportunities.

A lot of the people arriving in Europe by boat are a mix of migrants and refugees. However, migrants face extreme issues ranging from economic or environmental challenges to political conflicts that force them to move. However, the one way to differentiate a refugee from a migrant will be that the former will be forced to leave, and the latter is coerced to leave. This is best understood in the words of Judith Vonberg, “the term migrant ought to be accepted as a neutral descriptor which covers the situation of everyone who migrates, whether in exercise of a positive right as a citizen through to the desperate search for a safe haven”.

Newcomer: A newcomer is an immigrant or a refugee who has been given protection and residence permit in the host country. Newcomers have access to settlement services such as language, education, employment, and integration.

Asylum Seeker:

An asylum seeker is someone who has sought international protection but whose claims are still being processed by the governmental agencies who have received the application.

However, not all asylum seekers are refugees, but every refugee becomes an asylum seeker when they submit an asylum application. Asylum is sought when one feels their life is in danger but whose refugee status has not been officially determined. Additionally, asylum seekers must cross the border into the destination country to apply for asylum. Crossing into international borders to seek asylum is not an illegal act and is recognised under international law.

Immigrant: An immigrant is a person who leaves their home country to live in a foreign country with an intention to settle permanently. This is a legal process that entails lengthy vetting procedures to find legitimate pathways into the country of choice. They can always choose to return to their home country.

Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs):

IPDs are people who are displaced within the borders of their own country due to political or economic strife and environmental challenges.

These people might not have the means to cross borders to another nation, making them one of the most vulnerable populations globally. The rights of IDPs are not globally known. However, due to internal sovereignty, IDPs can still make their governments liable for their protection. Yet in many cases, the government is the reason for the misfortune of the IDPs. The Representative of the United Nations Secretary-General on Internally Displaced Persons developed a set of non-binding guidelines for IDPs called the Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement in 1998.