The difference between what actually constitutes a refugee, a migrant and an asylum seeker can easily be confused in the collective mind. These terms are often used in the news without necessarily having a definition to accompany them. Yet confusing these terms can be detrimental to each of these populations. So, who are these three groups of people really made up of and what are they really?
The term refugee is defined by international law and therefore benefits from its legal protection. This legislative framework is framed by the 1951 Convention and Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees. A refugee is thus any person living in a life-threatening situation. Their safety is at stake and it is thus dangerous for them to remain in their country of origin.
A refugee is any person who, by reason of religion, nationality, race, political opinion or membership of a particular social group, is outside the country of his or her nationality and is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself or herself of the protection of that country (Convention and Protocol relating to the Status of Refugees, 1951).
According to data by the United Nation High Commissioner of Refugee (UNHCR), in 2015, there were 21.3 million refugees worldwide.
The protection offered to refugees includes assurances that they will not be returned to places of danger, measures to respect their human rights and access to fair asylum procedures. This protection is primarily the responsibility of states. However, refugee status can be lost if the situation in the country of origin improves, if the person with refugee status returns voluntarily, or if they change nationality.
Although a refugee can be considered a migrant, there is no universal definition for the term migrant. It is also the term with the most negative connotation in public opinion.
“The umbrella term "migrant" is no longer sufficient to describe the horror that takes place in the Mediterranean Sea. It has evolved from its dictionary definitions to become a pejorative tool that dehumanises and distances. (...) It is a word that takes away the voice of those who suffer” (Al Jazeera, 2015)
The United Nations defines it as "any person who has resided in a foreign country for more than one year, regardless of the causes, voluntary or involuntary, of the movement, and regardless of the means, regular or irregular, used to migrate". UNESCO defines it as "any person who lives temporarily or permanently in a country in which he or she was not born and who has acquired significant social ties with that country".
More practically, the thousands of people crossing the Mediterranean can be considered as migrants. Among them are people considered as refugees in the sense of the UNHCR, the others are often considered as so-called economic migrants, i.e. people who have made the choice to leave in order to have a better life perspective for themselves and their families.
More practically, the thousands of people crossing the Mediterranean are migrants. Most of them will be asylum seekers in the country of arrival. A migrant (in this sense, often designed economic migrants) is someone who has made the choice to leave in order to have a better life perspective for themselves and their families. A refugee is someone who has been forced from their home.
An asylum seeker is anyone who seeks protection from a country other than their own, but whose claim is under consideration. All recognised refugees have been applicants, but not all asylum seekers will be recognised as refugees. The ability to seek asylum from a country is a human right to which all are entitled.
The difference and proper understanding of these three terms is fundamental to a better approach to migratory movements.