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In the mainstream media, often, when the issue of refugee flows is brought up the word ‘migrant’ easily follows. The world is often used to refer to refugees, or/and asylum seekers. Media outlets often choose to refer to groups of asylum seekers and refugees as migrants. 

But a migrant is not a refugee neither an asylum seeker. 

And the common mistake of referring to asylum seekers and refugees as ‘migrants’ can be way more harmful than it seems.

The definition of a ‘refugee’: 

It wasn’t until 1951 that an internationally recognized definition of ‘refugee’ was given. In 1951, countries convened in Geneva to sign the Geneva convention, aka the Convention relating to the Status of Refugees, which was updated in 1967. The Convention defined who a refugee is and outlines the rights of the displaced, as well as the legal obligations of nations and states to protect them. 

The U.S. government first declined to ratify this convention but did approve the Standards and procedures for enacting the convention, that was agreed to in the 1967 Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees, in 1968. Following the Vietnam War and the U.S. experience resettling Indochinese refugees, Congress passed the Refugee Act of 1980,

which incorporated the Convention’s definition into U.S. law and provides the legal basis for today’s U.S. Refugee Admissions Program (USRAP).

As of January 2020, 145 State parties approved it. 

The convention defines a refugee as someone who is unable or unwilling to return to their country of origin owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion. 

There is however a protection gap and no clear definition regarding climate refugees. They are not covered by the convention.

According to statistics published by the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre, every year since 2008, an average of 26.4 million persons around the world have been forcibly displaced by floods, windstorms, earthquakes or droughts. This is equivalent to one person being displaced every second. 

The definition of an ‘asylum seekers’:

An asylum seeker is an individual who is seeking international protection (refugee status). An asylum seeker is someone whose claim has not yet been finally decided on by the country in which he or she has submitted it. Not every asylum seeker will ultimately be recognised as a refugee, but every refugee is initially an asylum seeker. (Amnesty International)

According to UNHCR figures at the end of 2019, there were at least 79.5 million people around the world who have been forced to flee their homes. Among them are nearly 26 million refugees, and 4.2 million asylum seekers. 

The definition of a ‘migrant’

The definition of a migrant might vary since, at an international level, there is no universally accepted legal definition of the term like is the case with a refugee. 

Migrants choose to move not because of a direct threat of persecution or death, but mainly to ‘improve’ their lives by finding work, or in some cases for education, family reunion, or other reasons. 

Economic migrants choose to leave their countries and move in order to find a better life and they do not flee because of persecution but rather for economic reasons. Therefore they do not fall within the criteria for refugee status and are not entitled to receive international protection. 

Migration involves the voluntary decision to move to another city/country for better economic opportunities. Refugees are forced to flee in order to escape violence ​and insecurity. 

Each country has its own immigration laws and processes regarding migrants. For refugees, they must comply with norms of refugee protection and asylum that are defined in both national legislation and international law.

 If it is a term used for people of color, economic migrants are often perceived as ‘stealing opportunities’, while referring to white people, economic migrants are simply called expats. 

Forced Migration is “a general term that refers to the movements of refugees and internally displaced people (those displaced by conflicts within their country of origin) as well as people displaced by natural or environmental disasters, chemical or nuclear disasters, famine, or development projects.” 

 It’s crucial in today’s environment to understand the difference between an asylum seeker, a migrant, and a refugee because of all the misconceptions and misunderstandings around those terms. Each term has distinct meanings, although people often assume they mean the same thing. 

The term asylum seeker, which is often used, has, at a global level,  no technical legal significance. The term is a way of referring to a person who’s seeking refugee status but whose refugee status has not yet been determined by the host government. 

Referring to asylum seekers and refugees as migrants can influence importantly the way that these people are going to be treated. A refugee by law is given international protection and the state in which they ask for asylum must protect them and give them the necessary

support for them to survive and be safe. A migrant however is not required by law to be protected and is often seen in Europe’s politics as coming to have ‘better’ opportunities. 

The use of the term migrant by the media to describe people arriving in Europe because of fleeing their country is painting a picture of high numbers of people not coming to seek safety but for better lives, hence it does not steer compassion and empathy in the eyes of the public justifies their suffering, and marginalisation, and the non-respect of their human’s rights. Using the term “migrants” might also take away the focus on the circumstances leading to the people’s forced migration and place it instead on the desirability of their presence in the host state. Because Migrants are not forced to move, they still have the protection of their own country. 

Calling refugees and asylum seekers “migrants” implies that their home countries are safe places, where people are not risking their lives and could still have some kind of protection. Conservative governments often take that approach because they do not want to accept people from other countries.

Hostility or openness of these populations is often influenced by the news material the host population consumes.

The world “refugees” attracts the general public (compassion and empathy) more than “migrants” does. The desire to direct the public towards not sympathizing with these refugees and not helping them, especially in financial terms, might also be a reason why people/governments would rather classify them as migrants. 

Many media outlets also seem to not be aware of the complex and challenging process of claiming asylum in Europe. 


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