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The difference between migrants and refugees

19 July 20230 comments

United Nations Assistant High Commissioner for Protection and Australian academic Gillian Triggs recently sent out a tweet that exposes a hypocrisy in the global conversation about human displacement.

Professor Triggs, a former Australian Human Rights Commissioner chief, said: “Refugees are not migrants. Migrants are not refugees. All have rights that must be respected, but we should not conflate the two.”

“Refugees have the right to seek asylum and to international protection from persecution and violence.”

Some politicians and sections of the media, especially in Europe and the US but also elsewhere, refer to people arriving through irregular means using the blanket term “migrant”.

The fact that many of these people are fleeing war, persecution or the catastrophic effects of climate change and are seeking asylum and refuge seems lost on them.

Under any reasonable set of definitions, ‘migrants’ are people who choose to move, mostly to improve their lives and prospects; and they are able to return home safely at any time.

‘Refugees’ are people who have had to leave their homeland because they are fleeing conflict or persecution and cannot return home safely.

In Europe, a toxic debate has erupted over so-called ‘migrants’ with populist leaders running a narrative that people arriving in Europe are really seeking economic opportunity.

This despite the fact that many have fled conflicts from Syria to Venezuela.

The United Nations Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees was adopted in 1951 and the 143 nations who signed up it are obliged to uphold the rights of refugees who arrive on their shores.

These rights are detailed in the convention document and include the right to protection, freedom of religion, the right to work, access to courts and legal assistance, social security and the right to education.

It also includes the right to ‘non-refoulement’ which means that refugees can’t be sent back to places where they face danger.

The convention says a refugee is a person who has fled their country of origin and is unable or unwilling to return because of a well-founded fear of being persecuted because of their race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion.

It says an asylum seeker is a person who has left their country and is seeking protection from persecution and serious human rights violations in another country, but who hasn’t yet been legally recognised as a refugee and is waiting to receive a decision on their asylum claim.

And it says an economic migrant is someone who leaves his or her country of origin purely for financial and/or economic reasons.

Economic migrants choose to move in order to find a better life and they do not flee because of persecution. Therefore, they do not fall within the criteria for refugee status and are not entitled to receive international protection.

This toxic unedifying debate about ‘migrants’ comes at a time when global displacement is at record levels.

A record 110 million people are now displaced across the globe thanks to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, conflicts in Syria and Sudan as well as climate-fuelled disasters and crises, according to the latest UNHCR Global Trends report.

“The number of people forcibly displaced by persecution, conflict, violence, human rights violations and events seriously disturbing public order grew by 21 per cent standing at an estimated 108.4 million at the end of the year,’ the report says.

What really underpins the refugee protection system, and indeed the global rules-based order, is the concept of human rights.

The UN says human rights are agreed international standards that recognise and protect the dignity and integrity of every individual, without any distinction. Crucially, it says seeking asylum is one of them.

Human rights form part of established international law and are stipulated in a variety of national, regional and international legal documents generally referred to as human rights instruments.

The most prominent of these are the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and the International Covenant on Economic and Social Rights.

We are living in a time when wars are becoming more complex and internationalised and harder to end; and countries with fragile governments, economies, and geographies are bouncing from one crisis to the next.

And, as more people are displaced, and for longer periods, aid budgets cannot keep up.

So with countries like Italy and Greece are blocking entry to anyone from Africa and the British government attempting to send asylum seekers to Rwanda, human rights seem increasingly disposable.