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Migrants, refugees and asylum seekers – what do these words mean?

11 September 20150 comments

As the global migration crisis escalates to levels not seen since World War II with more than 60 million people displaced across the planet, the terms ‘migrant’, ‘refugee’ and ‘asylum seeker’ are in everyday use.

In the lexicon of the world’s humanitarian organisations, each of these words has a distinct meaning that carries different international consequences and obligations.

Sometimes these etymological distinctions can mean the difference between safety and peril or even life or death.

MIGRANTS are people on the move – usually voluntarily – within their country or to other countries to improve their lives through employment, education or for family reasons. Not all migrants move voluntarily, of course, and some are forced to leave for economic, climate or other reasons.

The International Organisation for Migration estimates that 232 million people a year become international migrants and another 740 million move within their own countries.

Amnesty International says most international migrants live in Europe (72 million), Asia (71 million) and North America (53 million).

The UN’s refugee agency HCR says that migrants generally don’t face impediments to returning to their homes – unlike refugees.

“Countries deal with migrants under their own immigration laws and processes. Countries deal with refugees through norms of refugee protection and asylum that are defined in both national legislation and international law,” a UNHCR statement says.

REFUGEES are people forced to flee their countries because of conflict or persecution and because their own governments can’t or won’t protect them. They are typically people who fear for their lives or have suffered rights abuses and persecution.

They are recognised as needing international protection because it is too dangerous for them to return home. They are protected under international law by the 1951 Refugee Convention, which defines what a refugee is and outlines the basic rights afforded to them.

Recently, the UNHCR warned of a “dangerous new era in worldwide displacement” with almost 60 million people forced to flee their homes at the end of 2014.

“Worldwide, one in every 122 humans is now either a refugee, internally displaced, or seeking asylum. If this was the population of a country, it would be the world’s 24th biggest,” a UNHCR report says.

ASYLUM SEEKERS are people who have fled their countries in search of international protection, but whose claims have not yet been decided.

The UN has said that not every asylum seeker will ultimately be recognised as a refugee, but every refugee was initially an asylum seeker.

Article 14 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights says that everyone has the right to seek asylum from persecution in other countries. The UN Refugee Convention of 1951 says that governments cannot send back refugees to the countries where they are at risk.

Most countries are under international obligation to consider claims for asylum and not to immediately return asylum seekers to the countries they have fled from.

The refugee convention states that they 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.



Jess Phillips
AMES Australia Staff Writer