learning pages / Themes and topics

5.3 : Terminology matters: From ‘economic migrants’ to refugees.

Migrant’ is an overarching term for anyone (with the exception of tourists) who moves from one country to another for a significant period of time. A refugee is a person who flees from conflict or persecution and seeks sanctuary in another country. (In many situations of insecurity, many or even most of those forced to move may in fact remain within their country: these internally displaced people, also called IDPs, rarely receive the same amount of attention in international media, despite often facing considerable challenges). An economic migrant is a person who moves in search of education, employment and other opportunities outside his or her country. Asylum-seekers are people who have applied for asylum in another country. Finally, stateless people are those who have either been deprived of or were born without citizenship.

Table of Content:

What is a migrant?

What is a refugee?

What is an asylum seeker?

About internally displaced persons.

What does it mean to be stateless?

Terms like ‘refugee’, ‘asylum-seeker’ and ‘economic migrant’ are often used in media reports. If used inaccurately or in the wrong contexts, they can demonize people and stoke political divisions. We will explain the meaning of all relevant key terms.

What is a migrant?

An umbrella term, not defined under international law, reflecting the common lay understanding of a person who moves away from his or her place of usual residence, whether within a country or across an international border, temporarily or permanently, and for a variety of reasons. The term includes a number of well-defined legal categories of people, such as migrant workers; persons whose particular types of movements are legally-defined, such as smuggled migrants; as well as those whose status or means of movement are not specifically defined under international law, such as international students.

IOM, ‘Glossary on Migration’, 2019

Essentially, a migrant is anyone who moves from one country to another to live for a period of time: it is not an established legislative term in most countries of the world and definitions vary.

But as the IOM definition above acknowledges, the term also encompasses a vast range of  drivers and motivations – from those ‘pushed’ from their home country by armed conflict or humanitarian crisis or ‘pulled’ by aspirations or opportunities abroad. As mentioned earlier, both ‘push’ and ‘pull’ factors may be at play for some, with real dangers forcing them to migrate but other needs or desires informing their choice of destination.

At the same time, ‘migrant’ is not synonymous with ‘foreigner’, though this is a common misconception. This terminology becomes even problematic when discussing the children of migrants, who may even have been born in the destination country and spent their entire lives there.

Second generations and beyond – are they ‘still’ migrants?

Should we describe the children of migrants who were born in a new country as ‘migrants’ themselves? From the perspective of the definition above, we should not. However, though these children may not have made any journey themselves, they may face specific challenges regardless of where they were born and raised. Therefore we may speak about people with a ‘migrant background’ or origin when the migration experience of their parents informs their own living context – for example, when discriminatory legislation may mean that they are still unable to access certain rights or protections on account of their parents being migrants themselves. At the same time, this does not mean that their identity as the children of migrants should be always be emphasized in other contexts, particularly if it is not relevant to the issue being covered. This is especially the case when this may expose them and other children of migrants to the risk of stigma: for example, when reporting on a crime where the perpetrators may happen to have a migrant background.

Migration can also span a range of timeframes from short-term migration to permanent resettlement, from ’pendlers’ who commute on a daily basis between countries (a common occurrence in many border regions, especially within the EU) or people working in ’turns’ such as social care workers and construction workers. There are also people who move seasonally for studies or work, such as fruit pickers.

The UN Global Compact for Migration, adopted by the majority of UN member states in 2018, was innovative in that it attempted to define migration in a broad and comprehensive legal framework, even though some countries in the global north have opted not to ratify this document as a result of the negative connotations surrounding migration since the so-called refugee crisis in 2015.

Migrants in numbers.

There were estimated to be 272 million international migrants globally in 2019 (UN DESA), a 57 percent increase from 173 million in 2000. If we factor in the world population increase, this still represents a rise from 2.8 per cent of the global population to 3.5 per cent.

Some of this rise may be related to the accession of Central and Eastern European countries into the EU, when, for example many Poles or Slovaks migrated to the UK and Ireland and many others began to work abroad, often not far beyond their own borders.

Some figures

  • Women and girls comprises 48 per cent of all migrants.
  • 64 per cent of migrants live in HIGH INCOME COUNTRIES, but this ratio is changing, with migrant populations growing faster in Northern Africa, Western Asia and in sub-Saharan Africa than in other regions, meaning an increasing share of new migrants are in these regions.
  • Per capita, the highest proportion of migrants are in countries in the Gulf, such as Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, where migrants make up more than four-fifths of the population.
  • Relatively lowest number of migrants are in India, Philippines or North Korea or Srí Lanka, in the EU it is Poland with 1,7 % or Romania with 1,9 % (there are generally less migrants in new EU member states than in so called old member states)

Source: UN DESA (2019)

The reasons why someone might become a migrant include:

  • To work or look for a better life: this group is often called ‘economic migrants’ – a term that can have negative connotations in countries where immigration is a contentious political issue. This can include countries such as Poland or Slovakia where a significant proportion of citizens are themselves economic migrants elsewhere.
  • To study at university: a growing number of students both from other EU countries and the global south are enrolling as students in European universities.
  • To join family members who have already migrated: this may include the humanitarian principle of ‘family reunion’ for relatives of recognized refugees.
  • To flee war or persecution: this category would normally be classified under international law as refugees, though in reality only a fraction of those who would meet these criteria are officially classified as refugees in their destination countries.

When examining the motivations for migration, it is vital to avoid narrow or rigid categorizations for complex and challenging migration contexts. Someone may become a migrant for more than one of these reasons: for example, they might flee a war and still hope to build a better life for their family. (For more details, check Causes of migration).

Barriers faced by migrants.

Migrants are subject to immigration controls and may need a visa to enter certain countries (unless they are moving between countries within the Schengen area in the EU). 

In most countries, migrants do not immediately gain access to social housing, social security or other benefits available to citizens (though many citizens in destination countries, as a result of misleading media coverage, may make this assumption). But over time, migrants may be able to complete a process that allows them to settle and become citizens of the new country.

These people and their situations are coordinated under a country’s migration policies (these policies do not relate to refugees).

What is a refugee?

‘Refugees are ordinary people, living through extraordinary times.’

UNHCR Teaching About Refugees

Essentially, a refugee is someone who has fled conflict or persecution, and needs international protection because it is not safe for them to return to their home country.

The refugee agenda falls under the responsibility of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

The UN 1951 Refugee Convention defines a refugee as someone who:

  • Has a 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 their nationality or where they have previously been resident;
  • Is unable or unwilling to return to that country.

Its basic principle is called ‘non-refoulement’ – a principle which forbids a country receiving asylum seekers from returning them to a country where they would be in likely danger of persecution based on ‘race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion’.

Note that the fear of persecution is especially likely to affect people who are members of racial, ethnic, religious or social minorities. Minority groups are often at particular risk of being displaced or targeted.

The refugee definition is considered to have two key components: one objective element and one subjective one. The objective element is the ‘well-founded’ aspect, namely the situation in the country of origin, answered by questions such as: are members of that particular minority being persecuted? The subjective element is the ‘fear’ aspect; in other words, how the person in question interpretes the situation. This is relevant to journalists, as it means that the individual stories of refugees should carry as much weight as descriptions of the countries they are fleeing from.

However, while the official UN definition speaks about fear of persecution, it does not cover people fleeing armed conflict. This category is therefore granted international protection as refugees through various regional treaties (such as the Organisation of African Unity’s Convention or Cartagena Declaration in Latin America).

Some states, including countries in the EU, have made the same provision through ‘subsidiary protection regimes’. These afford a lower level of international protection in comparison to asylum and may have a fixed timeframe: for example, in Belgium, Sweden and some other countries this status needs to be renewed every year, while in Spain or Italy the period is five years (source).

Time limits make it very difficult to settle down and integrate, placing already vulnerable individuals in further uncertainty by depriving them and their children of a chance to rebuild their lives.

Anyone who applies for any kind of international protection – whether some form of asylum or subsidiary protection – is considered to be an asylum seeker.

Once this protection is granted to this person, s/he officially becomes a beneficiary of international protection either as a refugee (or exile) or beneficiary of subsidiary protection.

What rights and responsibilities do refugees have?
  • A refugee has the right to safe asylum. This is more than just physical safety. Refugees should receive at least the same rights and basic assistance as any other foreigner who is a legal resident, including freedom of thought, freedom of movement, and freedom from torture and degrading treatment.
  • A refugee should have access to medical care, schooling and the right to work.
  • When adequate government resources are not immediately available – for example, when a large number of people are suddenly displaced – international organizations such as UNHCR may provide financial grants, food, tools, shelter and basic infrastructure such as schools and clinics.
  • Refugees are required to respect the laws and regulations of their country of asylum.

(Drawn from information provided by UNHCR)

What is an asylum seeker?

If a person wishes to be recognized as a refugee and receive protection, s/he has to apply for asylum in the country where s/he wants to stay. While applications of those people are being considered, they are referred to as asylum-seekers.

Under international law, states must consider claims for asylum, and not immediately return asylum-seekers to the countries they have fled from (or to a neighbouring country). 

The UN 1951 Refugee Convention states that asylum-seekers must be given access to fair and efficient asylum procedures and measures, to ensure they live in dignity and safety while their claims are processed.

Countries around the world use different approaches to process asylum applications. In some countries it is more unified than in the others. In the EU there is, for example, Common European Asylum System in place, based on measures harmonizing COMMON MINIMUM STANDARDS for asylum in each member country of the community. Besides minimum standards this system determines which member country is obliged to process the application of individual asylum seekers. 

This obligation is regulated by the so called Dublin Regulation. It states that responsibility for processing of asylum application is at the first country of entry of a person seeking sanctuary. From the moment that the application for international protection is made – either for some type of ASYLUM (in case s/he falls under Refugee convention) or for SUBSIDIARY PROTECTION – an asylum seeker should not be sanctioned for the irregularity of his or her entry or stay in the country. Not to mention the fact that an illicit crossing of a national border and undocumented residency is in most countries considered to be a contravention, rather than a crime – meaning there should not be any imprisonment involved.

Source: UNHCR Teaching About Refugees
Barriers faced by asylum-seekers

It can take months or years for an asylum claim to be processed. In Central and Eastern Europe – and in many other parts of Europe as well – asylum-seekers are usually placed in basic accommodation on the edge of cities, and receive a minimal level of social security. And they are usually also denied the opportunity to work even for small jobs. This situation can have a serious impact on their wellbeing and long term prospects of integration.

In many European countries, there is a widespread assumption that most asylum-seekers are really economic migrants and their claims for asylum are false. The term ‘asylum-seeker’ itself can therefore have negative connotations – implying that the person may not be entitled to refugee status. However, it can differ in different languages and discourses.

Minorities seeking asylum

Members of minority groups are especially likely to experience the persecution that can cause people to seek asylum in another country. 

They are also particularly vulnerable to discrimination during the process of actually applying for asylum. They might face abuse and discrimination in reception centres, or their asylum claim might not be considered fairly.

About internally displaced persons.

If a conflict breaks out, a natural disaster occurs or a community is being persecuted, most people’s first response is to seek refuge somewhere else in their own country, in the hope of returning home as soon as it is safe to do so. They might stay with family members or friends.

Seeking asylum in another country is usually seen as a last resort – and many people do not have the means or ability to leave the country even if they wanted to. People in this situation are known as Internally Displaced Persons or IDPs.

The number of IDPs is in fact considerably higher than the total number of refugees: 2019 estimates by UNHCR suggest that while there are an estimated 25.9 million refugees, the total IDP population is around 41.3 million. Despite this, the situation of IDPs tends to receive less attention than that of refugee – perhaps, because they remain within the borders of their country of origin and are therefore unlikely to migrate to Europe.

What rights do internally displaced persons have?

The phrase ‘internally displaced person’ is a descriptive term, not a legal one. Although many IDPs face the same difficulties as refugees, they are not granted the same rights under international law. 

IDPs do still have rights, such as the rights to receive humanitarian assistance, to be protected from physical violence, and to enjoy freedom of movement. They also have the right to safely return home or to resettle elsewhere. 

However, some governments are unable or unwilling to provide protection and ensure the rights of internally displaced persons. Minority groups that are suffering persecution by their own governments can be left especially vulnerable when they are displaced internally.

Source: UNHCR
Climate change and IDPs.

Between 2014 and 2017, the El Niño weather pattern caused droughts and other extreme weather conditions, forcing more than one million people to move in East Africa. 

According to the International Organization for Migration, between August 2015 and February 2016 more than 280,000 people in regions of Somalia that rely on sheep or cattle farming were displaced due to food insecurity.

Nearly a million people were displaced from the Somali region to other parts of Ethiopia by extreme weather conditions. Most of them were Sunni Muslims, an ethnic minority within Ethiopia. 

These are just a few examples of the impact climate change, which is posing a threat to security locally, globally as well as glocally. Find more information on climate change and migration in another post.

What does it mean to be stateless?

The international legal definition of a stateless person is ‘a person who is not considered as a national by any State under the operation of its law’ (UNHCR). A stateless person does not have a nationality of any country. Some people are born stateless, but others become stateless. 

Sometimes we can also differ between de jure and de facto statelessness. The former relates to situations where people are not recognized as citizens by any country – according to UNHCR, there are an estimated 10 million people without recognized citizenship. 

The second group, those who find themselves in a situation of de facto statelessness, is more subtle. It describes contexts where people are nationals (or citizens) by law, but in practice are unable to exercise their rights as citizens.

Source: UNHCR Teaching About Refugees
Statelessness can occur for various reasons, for example:
  • discrimination against a particular ethnic or religious group
  • discrimination on the basis of gender
  • arbitrary deprivation of one’s nationality
  • failing birth registration procedures
  • the emergence of new states
  • transfers of territory between existing states
  • gaps or contradictions in nationality laws

Some of these issues are the result of communal hatred and/or discrimination around issues such as ethnicity or gender identity. This is the case, for instance, in the exclusion of Rohingya in Myanmar/Burma or the marginalization of sub-Saharan ethnic groups in Mauritania.

Failing institutions or state collapse can also lead to statelessness. You could, for example, suddenly wake up in a new country which has somehow forgotten about you: this was the case for plenty of former USSR citizens, especially in Central Asia but also in newly independent European states. 

Or, even if you have registered the birth of your child properly, the information could get lost, and ineffective bureaucracy prevents you from resolving the situation.

How does it influence a person?

‘There are some very tangible items I have that show that I belong. Day-to-day objects that I take for granted, to be quite frank: my passport, my credit card …, my Medicare card, and something as simple as my drivers’ license. I’d like you just for a moment to think about the items you have in your own wallet or purse, and how they define you, and what they entitle you to, and what doors they open for you, and how difficult your life would be if you lost these documents, or in fact, never had them in the first place.’

Cate Blanchett, UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador in her speech during UNHCR High-Level Segment on Statelessness, 7.10.2019

For most of us, it is difficult to imagine the experience of being stateless: we take our citizenship for granted. But for the estimated 10 million people worldwide who are stateless, their lack of citizenship colours every aspect of their lives – even basic rights such as education, healthcare, employment and freedom of movement may be impossible to access. 

These people are either de iure or de facto deprived of the opportunity to exercise the rights which we associate with citizenship. They can be, for example, excluded from political processes, unable to vote, let alone be elected. They may not even be allowed to go to school, see a doctor, get a job, open a bank account, buy a house, get married or register their children’s births. In this context, statelessness is often a precursor – and a root cause – of forced involuntary migration. Stateless people very often face discrimination, violations of their human rights, persecution or various kinds of harassment.

Statelessness today.
  • Today, at least 10 million people around the world are denied a nationality (UNHCR data for 2019).
  • In Europe alone, around 600,000 people are stateless due to the dissolution of former states, especially in former USSR, but also former Yugoslavia. You can find more info in this brochure with a variety of stories from ordinary people who just happen to be stateless.
Minorities and statelessness.

Of the estimated 10 million stateless people worldwide, 75 percent are members of minorities. There are numerous reasons why members of minorities are especially vulnerable to becoming stateless:

  • Governments sometimes target religious or ethnic minorities by changing the law to deprive them of their nationality.
  • When borders are changed, people who belong to ethnic, racial and religious minorities often have trouble proving their link to the country in order to qualify for nationality. Often, their statelessness will be passed on to their children, perpetuating the problem to the next generation.
  • In some countries, the rules setting out who can and who cannot pass on their nationality are discriminatory. For example, in 27 countries the laws do not let women pass on their nationality. In other countries, citizenship is only open to people of certain races and ethnicities.

Story: stateless people in the Dominican Republic

Dominicans of Haitian descent very often cannot get married or have access to education, health care, work, travel or justice in the country where they belong. Read a photostory which exposes the realities of life for seven young Dominicans of Haitian descent living in the Dominican Republic.

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5.1 : Migration as a global phenomenon.

Migration is not a new phenomenon: people have been on the move since the dawn of humankind. Indeed, the history of humanity is a history of migration – some have even argued that movement is our natural state. Migration has always been an essential part of our adaptation to environmental stress, social upheaval and other challenges. The same is true today, even though it has now become global in scale.

5.2 : What is migration?

Simply put, migration is human movement from one place to another. It may involve a single individual or an entire community, internal resettlement within a country or a journey spanning multiple continents, forced flight from the threat of violence or a voluntary search for opportunities elsewhere. Indeed, in many cases it can involve a mixture of patterns and motivations: for instance, migrants may have to flee very real dangers to themselves and their families, while at the same time actively plan for a better life elsewhere. Migration has a variety of facets and there are plenty of reasons – some even seemingly contradictory – why people decide to leave or stay.

5.4 : Transnationals.

Technologies have not only enabled people to move across the world far more easily than before, but also to keep in close contact with families back home. In particular, information and communication technologies (ICTs) have facilitated the development of complex social connections, crossing national borders and spanning the globe. As a result, a growing number of migrants are now ‘transnational’.

5.5 : Migration and development.

Migration is often closely linked to processes related to development. There is no single definition of development, but in broad terms it can be understood as the potential for individuals and communities within a society to access services, employment and other opportunities on an equitable basis. If people do not have a chance to develop their potential, if they are excluded from participating in development, they might decide to move.

5.6 : Migration and minorities.

A minority may be a group numerically inferior to the rest of the population but also in some cases larger in number, but in a non-dominant position. Minorities usually possess certain ethnic, religious, linguistic and other characteristics differing from those of the rest of the population. Due to their marginalized position within society, they are vulnerable to discrimination, and are unable to secure an equal share of development opportunities. This all makes these communities more exposed to various challenges that they may attempt to resolve by deciding to move.

5.7 : Smuggling.

According to the UN definition smuggling "is a crime involving the procurement for financial or other material benefit of illegal entry of a person into a State of which that person is not a national or resident." In principle, it implies a level of consent among those being smuggled – as opposed to those subjected to human trafficking, who are effectively captive to their traffickers. Once a migrant is smuggled through a border to their agreed destination, the relationship is usually over, while human trafficking generally involves the continued coercion of victims, often over a period of many years.

5.8 : Fortress Europe.

Since the EU was established, the borders between its member states have been dissolving. Yet at the same time, its external borders have hardened – an approach widely known as ‘Fortress Europe’. Even for those fleeing persecution, entering the EU has become increasingly impossible for most refugees. As a result, many have been forced to take more dangerous routes, with a corresponding rise in the number of dead or missing people as desperation leads them to seek out smugglers and puts them at risk of human trafficking. Fortress Europe does not stop at its actual borders, but goes deep into neighbouring countries or even further in some cases in an attempt to create a buffer zone through a web of agreements, funding, detention centres and naval patrols.

5.9 : Misinterpreted facts on migration.

Migration is an important issue in public debate and policy-making – across Europe and worldwide. And the media are part of it. Sometimes they build their narratives around migration on pure myths or speculation. At other times, however, they may reply on more subtle distortions and misconceptions: these may be, strictly speaking, factually correct but presented or interpreted out of context or misleadingly.

5.10 : Migration causes.

Migration is typically caused by a variety of factors, both ‘push’ and ‘pull’. People might decide to move because of a range of factors, be it employment, security, opportunities, education, even love, unavailable to them in their home country and ‘pulling’ them elsewhere. On the other hand, there can be compelling drivers of displacement such as conflict, persecution, natural disasters and other immediate threats, that push them to migrate. In this post we focus on the latter – push factors related to forced migration.

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