By Daniel Adyera on August 30, 2019

Refugee, Migrant and Asylum Seeker: Why the differences matter.


In the modern era, cross-border movements have become very common with hundreds of people moving daily from one country to another. These individual and group movements have occurred for centuries for a variety of reasons. For instance, some left their home countries in search for better living conditions whereas others fled from persecution within their countries/communities. Today, reasons for the increasing cross-border movements have largely remained the same. Many people travel from one country to another for various reasons such as seeking refuge and protection from conflicts, seeking better economic opportunities, family reunions and tourism among others. Notwithstanding the growing cross border movements, common misconceptions and misunderstandings exist about the different categories of persons engaged in cross-border movements. Migration scholars have noted that there are divergent understandings and appreciation of who a refugee, an asylum seeker or a migrant is. They argue that there is a tendency of confusing these different categories of persons or groups. For example, it often common to hear someone talk about a refugee while referring to an asylum seeker and vice versa. Recently, Al Jazeera announced that it would no longer make reference to the Mediterranean ‘migrant crisis’ but to the Mediterranean ‘refugee crisis’. In subsequent events, a petition was a lodged by some individuals using the online platform ‘’, calling for the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) follow Al Jazeera’s stance and make use of the term ‘refugee crisis’ instead of the often used ‘migrant crisis’. In light of these semantic switches, an understanding of the differences between the three categories of persons crossing borders is crucial for many reasons which I will only highlight two here. First, in many countries, migration is often a salty political issue with heated debates whether or not to allow non citizens into the country. Second, the legal regime offers different rights and legal protection for each category of individuals or groups crossing borders. Appreciating the inherent differences has important public policy implications for governments because of the differences in immigration laws in and attitudes in different countries which may be the same for the different categories for persons engaged in cross-border movements.

The term ‘refugee’ is defined under Article 1(A)(2) of the  1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees as any person who:

‘…….owing to well founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable or, owing to such fear,is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country; or who,not having a nationality and being outside the country of his formerhabitual residence as a result of such events, is unable or, owing to suchfear, is unwilling to return to it.

According to Habitat for Humanity Great Britain, an asylum seeker is potential refugee, whose refugee status has not yet been determined whereas a migrant refers to one who moves seeking ‘greener’ pasture in another country. Basing on this definition, an individual is an asylum seeker until his/her refugee status is confirmed. This view is however not equally shared. In countries such as The Netherlands, the immigration law makes provisions that asylum status is granted to an individual already considered a refugee. For example, several Syrian refugees have been granted asylum status in The Netherlands, allowing them to work and live in The Netherlands just like other Dutch citizens. The 1951 Refugee Convention does not define who an asylum seeker is but considers, just like the Dutch immigration law, whichrefugee can apply for asylum while already in the host country. Therefore, depending on a given country’s immigration laws, attitudes and policies, an individual who leaves their home country for fear of persecution could be considered a refugee or an asylum seeker pending permission to stay in that given country. On the other side, a migrant a remains a migrant from the time they enter another country seeking opportunities to improve their lives.

Currently, many countries are tightening their border walls to check on the increasing cross-border movements. The European Union (EU) and many Western governments a have increasingly become concerned about irregular migration with its accompanying challenges such as human trafficking and smuggling. The challenges of dealing with such problems raise concerns for some politicians in some countries who call for stringent admission criteria and procedures for persons genuinely in need of their protection such as refugees and asylum seekers. Their attitudes raise other challenges in meeting governmental responsibilities of ensuring legal rights and duties owed to protect refugees and asylum seekers. The rights and minimum standards of refugee protection are spelled out and defined in the 1951 Refugee Convention. Unlike migrants, refugees and asylum seekers may breach immigration laws and suffer no consequences for such breaches. Moreover, there is a cardinal principle of non-refoulementin refugee law. This principle provides that a refugee or an asylum seeker should not be returned involuntarily to his/her country of origin where there are threats to his/her life. Migrants are not covered by this principle. A migrant can be deported at any time once he/she breaches national laws or codes of conduct of the host country. Because of the difference in understanding and failure of distinguishing between the categories of persons engaged in cross-border movements, some anti-immigration populist politicians in some countries have waged campaigns against admission of genuine refugees and asylum seekers fleeing from persecution in their countries. This has led to suffering and abuse of rights of some refugees mistaken to be irregular migrants. Some have been are held indefinitely in detention centres against the spirit of refugee protection laws. Therefore, I believe that once the fundamental distinctions between a refugee, an asylum seeker and migrant are understood and appreciated, we may witness a sudden shift of attitude, change of laws and policies favourable to refugees and asylum seekers and afford them better care, protection and assistance away from home.

Written by Daniel Adyera

Y4P Fellow 2019

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