Definitions are important in order to better understand our world, especially when it comes to defining the status of a person. This blog post will explain how refugees, migrants, and asylum-seekers are defined, as well as the rights that each one has.
It is fundamental to clear up the confusion around definitions, particularly when it comes to the difference between the terms “migrant” and “refugee.” The word “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 labeled as migrants. However, international law only recognizes as refugees those fleeing conflict and violence.
The first major definition of “refugee” was drafted in the UN’s 1951 Convention relating to the status of refugees in response to mass persecution and displacement during World War II. 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 because of their race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion, and it often results in 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.
What happens when someone flees their country? For most refugees, the journey is 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. While some people seek safety with their families, others attempt passage alone and leave their loved ones behind with the hope 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, this person is an “asylum-seeker,” someone who is in need of and searching for refuge. Asylum-seekers are not officially recognized as refugees until their applications have been accepted. While countries by and large agree on this definition of “refugee,” each host country is responsible for examining all requests for asylum and deciding whether applicants can be granted the status of refugee. The right to seek asylum from persecution in other countries is a universal human right, set out in Article 14 of the UN’s Declaration of Human Rights. However, each country’s guidelines can vary substantially.
According to the UN, host countries have several duties towards people they have recognized as refugees, including guaranteeing a minimum standard of treatment and non-discrimination. 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, more than half of all refugee minors, don't go to school. Therefore, 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 understand the rights, freedoms, and challenges associated with each status. With this knowledge, we can support 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 degree, I chose to study Arabic while for my master's I opted for a more specific area which is Middle Eastern politics. At the moment I am an intern at the Paper Airplanes 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