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What is the difference between a migrant, a refugee, and an asylum seeker?

by Nura Alawia

Definitions are important in order to hold a better understanding, especially when it comes to defining the status quo of a person. In this blog post, I try to shed a light on the definitions of refugee, migrant, and asylum seeker, as well as the diverse rights that correspond to certain definitions.

It is fundamental to clear up the confusion around definitions, particularly when it comes to the difference between the terms ‘migrant’ and ‘refugee’. Migrant usually refers to people who leave their country for reasons not related to persecution, such as searching for better economic opportunities or leaving drought-stricken areas in search of better circumstances. There are many people around the world who have been displaced because of natural disasters, food insecurities and other hardships, and they are labelled as migrants. However, international law only recognises those fleeing conflict and violence as refugees and not migrants.

The first major definition of ‘refugee’ was drafted in the UN’s 1951 Convention relating to the status of refugees in response to mass persecutions and displacements of the Second World War. A refugee is someone who is outside their country of nationality and is unable to return to their home country because of well-founded fears of being persecuted. That persecution may be due to their race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group or political opinion and is often related to war and violence. Today, roughly half the world’s refugees are children, many of them unaccompanied by an adult. Each refugee’s story is different, and many must undergo dangerous journeys with uncertain outcomes in pursuit of safety.


So what happens when someone flees their country? Most refugee journeys are long and perilous with limited access to shelter, water, or food. Since the departure can be sudden and unexpected, belongings might be left behind, and people who are evading conflict often do not have the required documents, like visas, to board airplanes and legally enter other countries. Financial and political factors can also prevent them from traveling by standard routes. This means they can usually only travel by land or sea, and may need to entrust their lives to smugglers to help them cross borders. Whereas some people seek safety with their families, others attempt passage alone and leave their loved ones behind with the hopes of being reunited later. This separation can be dramatic and unbearably long.


While more than half the world’s refugees are in cities, sometimes the first stop for a person fleeing conflict is a refugee camp, usually run by the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) or local governments. Refugee camps are intended to be temporary structures, offering short-term shelter until inhabitants can either safely return home, integrate into the host country, or resettle in another country. But resettlement and long-term integration options are often limited, and many refugees are left with no choice but to remain in camps for years and sometimes even decades.


Once in a new country, the first legal step for a displaced person is to apply for asylum. At this point, they are an ‘asylum seeker’ and not officially recognized as a refugee until their application has been accepted. While countries by and large agree on one definition of refugee, every host country is responsible for examining all requests for asylum and deciding whether applicants can be granted the status of refugee. In fact, an asylum seeker is someone who is in need and searching for refuge. The right to seek asylum from persecution in other countries is a universal human right, set out in Article 14 of the UN Declaration of Human Rights. However, different countries’ guidelines can vary substantially.


Host countries have several duties towards people they have recognized as refugees, including to guarantee a minimum standard of treatment and non-discrimination according to the UN. The most basic obligation towards refugees is non-refoulement, a principle preventing a nation from sending an individual to a country where their life and freedom are threatened. In reality, however, refugees are frequently the victims of inconsistent and discriminatory treatment. They are increasingly obliged to rebuild their lives in the face of xenophobia and racism. And all too often, they are not permitted to enter the workforce and are fully dependent on humanitarian aid. In addition, far too many refugee children are out of school due to lack of funding for education programs. A report released by the UN has highlighted the education crisis among refugee children: some 3.7 million, or more than half of all refugee minors, don't go to school. Thus, it is urgent to invest in refugees’ education since there are generations of children condemned to grow up unable to access it.


Understanding the terms ‘refugee’, ‘migrant’, and ‘asylum seeker’ are important to better comprehend the rights, freedoms, and challenges associated with each status. Within a comprehensive understanding of the meanings and distinctions between these terms we can provide support and aid for individuals who have been affected by conflict or other factors, in the various stages of their journeys.

About the author: Nura Alawia

My name is Nura Alawia and I'm a big fan of travel. The best part of traveling is getting to know people with different experiences, cultures, and traditions (including food, of course). For my undergraduate, I chose to study Arabic while for my master I opted for a more specific area which is Middle Eastern politics. At the moment I am an intern at the PA and I cannot be happier considering the objectives of the organization and given the people involved in it whose inspiration, friendship, and high motivation are fantastic.

The views and opinions represented in this post belong solely to the author of the blog post, and are not representative of the views and policies of Paper Airplanes and its staff members

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