Migrants and Refugees: What is the Difference?


In the current migration crisis, media outlets have been using the terms ‘migrant’ and ‘refugee’ interchangeably to mean the same thing. However, the terms have distinct meanings that carry different international obligations and consequences. If used improperly, it could mean the difference between life and death.

What’s the difference?


Simply put, a migrant is someone who moves from one place to another in order to live in another country for more than a year. There are many reasons why people become migrants, but commonly migrants move to work and better their living conditions.


A refugee is a person who has fled armed conflict or persecution and who is recognised as needing of 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 refugees as:

Someone unable or unwilling to return to their country of origin owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion

Every nation that signed that convention – which includes the UK – is bound under its rules to consider all asylum applications. Article 17 states they all have a right to earn a wage. Article 31 states there must be no penalty for illegal entry of a country. Under the rules, refugees have the same right to education, healthcare, freedom of association and movement as any other citizen of the nation that considers their asylum application.

So the difference between migrant and refugees is clear. A migrant has a choice to return to his country of origin; he can live safely there with no threats on his life. But a refugee doesn’t get a choice. They are forced to leave.

It is vital that the media stops labelling Syrians, Eritreans, Libyans and Iraqis as migrants. AlJazeera online editor Barry Malone claims the term does not do people justice, and is no longer fit to describe the horrors of the Mediterranean crossings. The term ‘migrant’ carries connotations of an unwanted and uninvited swarm that’s attacking fortress Europe. It is a dehumanising term that strips away the human suffering and the life and death situations refugees face on a daily basis. It is very important to recognise them as refugees and not migrants in order to arouse empathy and compassion.

Alexander Betts, director of the Refugee Studies Centre at Oxford University says: ‘Refugee implies that we have an obligation to people; that we have let them on to our territory’.

This is why words matter in the migration debate; it could mean the difference between life and death.


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