Our world is facing a humanitarian crisis of epic proportions; 2015 alone has seen hundreds of thousands of people risking their lives—and losing their lives— to flee war, violence, poverty, persecution, and other harsh or tragic circumstances in their home countries. Millions more are displaced within their home countries.
Where and how to provide refuge is an issue that cannot be ignored and a conversation that must be had. Sadly, it took a tragic photo of a drowned child on a European beach to capture much of the world’s attention – but the issue is finally at the forefront; with world leaders offering their homes, and even the Pope taking a stance.
However in having this conversation, many people are unsure of the appropriate language to use. Refugee? Migrant? Asylum-seeker? Immigrant? First and foremost, we must be reminded that these are human beings; families like yours and mine.
That being said, there are significant legal implications depending on the term used. While entire treatises can be written on the meaning and legal implications of these terms, I offer a simple guide to when a term might appropriately be used:
Refugee: Generally, a refugee is a person who has been forced to flee their home country due to persecution on account of race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or membership in a particular social group. A person who qualifies as a refugee pursuant to the United Nations’ 1951 Refugee Convention will be afforded a number of protections under international law; including, most significantly, not being immediately deported back to their country of persecution.
Migrant: A migrant is a person who is resettling in another country, or in different region or safe place within their home country, in search of a better life. The umbrella term migrant can be used to describe any person who has moved to a new place from their home country, including those who do so voluntarily and under positive circumstances. For this reason, the use of this term for some is uncomfortable, as it lacks the urgency of a term like refugee and tends to connote voluntariness. In fact, the term migrant covers millions of displaced persons worldwide who are forced to flee very harsh conditions in their home country, who do not flee because they want to, but because they must.
While a great many migrants are in fact refugees, the term is not restricted to a person fleeing persecution. A person fleeing poverty is a prime example; a person displaced due to a disaster is another example. Generally, such a migrant is not afforded protections under international law; unless that person qualifies as a refugee, a migrant’s entry into a particular country will be processed pursuant to that country’s immigration laws—without the protections afforded by the 1951 Refugee Convention.
Asylum-seeker: An asylum-seeker is a person who is fleeing persecution in their home country and seeking status as a refugee in a safe country, but whose claims to refugee status have not yet been adjudicated. Many migrants are asylum-seekers, and will become refugees upon adjudication of their legal claims.
Immigrant: The term immigrant is a general term that can be used to describe any type of person who has left their home country as a migrant and is settled at the new country they will call home. Such a person could have been fleeing persecution as an asylum-seeker and then a refugee; such a person could also have been fleeing poverty or some other harsh conditions that do not rise to what international law deems to be persecution; such a person could also have left their home country for positive reasons.
While the term being used to describe a person is significant in a legal sense, it is crucial to remember that whatever their legal status, these are all people we are talking about— grandparents, moms and dads, brothers and sisters, children. Each is a unique human being facing a unique set of circumstances, who must be treated individually and with respect.