The terms “refugee” and “migrant” are being used interchangeably by government officials, mainstream media outlets and average people on the street in reference to the humanitarian crisis we are witnessing around the world today.
However, it is important to note that these terms have very different meanings and legal distinctions.
To be clear, many of the (mainly European) politicians who are using the term “migrants” to describe the influx of millions of (predominantly Muslim) people into their lands are deliberately doing so to avoid using the term “refugees,” which would automatically trigger legal protections under international law and European Union agreements.
According to the 1951 U.N. Refugee Convention, a refugee is defined as someone who “owing to a 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.”
On the other hand, people who are migrants (just think “immigrants”) may leave their country of origin for reasons that could include employment, education or any other kind of effort to improve their lot; but do not possess the “well-founded fear” legal standard that refugees fulfill according to the U.N. convention.
To put it another way, if I left my comfortable home in Washington, D.C., and moved to Germany, I would be a migrant.
On the other hand, if a person leaves a war-torn country like Syria and moves to Germany, this person should then be classified as a refugee. This person would automatically be granted more legal protections under international law and EU treaties, which would allow them to apply for asylum (much easier than if they were considered a migrant moving from Washington, D.C., to Germany).
“This [2015 humanitarian crisis] is a primarily refugee crisis, not only a migration phenomenon,” U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres said in a statement last week.
Simply put again, a “refugee” is someone who has been forced to flee his or her home country because of armed conflict or persecution (like the situations in Syria and Iraq) because of a “well-founded fear” of persecution and/or violence.
People categorized as “migrants,” who choose to resettle in search of a better life, are processed under the receiving country’s immigration laws and can be deported summarily to their home country if the receiving country does not want them. However, it would be a violation of international law to deport refugees back to their home countries under the international legal doctrine of “non-refoulement,” which forbids the rendering of a true victim of persecution to his or her persecutor in his or her home country.
This is why we have seen some European leaders — like Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban — resistant to opening their doors to the influx of people. Orban recently contended that the “overwhelming majority” are economic migrants and not refugees, according to The Los Angeles Times.
Since the majority of refugees on the planet are Muslim, this global debate about whether to frame these destitute populations as “refugees” or “migrants” also has anti-Muslim xenophobic undertones, according to the head of Human Rights Watch.
“Every European country is a product of migration and population flows. Yes, Europe has been predominantly Christian, but countries have been able to integrate Muslims, and those who have not, have frankly been faulty of their social welfare policy,” Executive Director Kenneth Roth said in an interview with the Voice of America.
“There is a real need to stand up against that Islamophobia. It is based on this false conception of European history that there is such thing as ethnic purity,” he continued.
Similarly, the International Rescue Committee also recently voiced dismay at President Barack Obama’s announcement that the U.S. government would increase by just 2,000 the number of Syrian refugees to be admitted to the United States in 2016 — to 10,000 from 8,000. The IRC said it is supporting Refugee Council USA in its call for the U.S. to resettle 100,000 refugees next year.
Syria’s nearly five-year civil war has claimed more than 250,000 lives and forced more than 4 million Syrians out of their home country due to a “well-founded fear” for their safety (which, again, would make them “refugees” under international law).
Although it might seem like semantics, these are among the numerous reasons this current humanitarian crisis should be framed as a “refugee” crisis, not a “migrant” one.