The Importance of Words: Refugee, Asylum Seeker, or Migrant?

There has been lots of discussion about refugees, asylum seekers, and migrants over the past few years, and the terms are often used interchangeably and incorrectly–even by publications like the BBC. In reality, these terms have significant political implications for how these individuals are received into a country, the protections and rights they receive, and even how the receiving society might react to their arrival.

In August 2015, the global news organization Al Jazeera announced that it would no longer refer to the people fleeing war to seek refuge in Europe as migrants, but rather as refugees. This is one example among many of the importance of consciously choosing the terms we use. Our choice of words sends a message, and using terms without thought can accidentally send messages we don’t mean.

Unofficially classifying someone as a refugee or a migrant comes with certain connotations (something worth delving into deeper), but classifying them officially as such has concrete effects on their lives. For example, when the UN officially recognizes a certain group of people as refugees, they are granted different kinds of international protection that migrants do not receive. This is also why the topic can be controversial — who’s to say that migrants from other conflicts and countries don’t also need protection? Where is the line drawn when it comes to international aid?

The conversation is complex and certainly multifaceted, but we can at least try to clarify one aspect of the conversation. Let’s take a look at the official differences between refugees, migrants, and asylum seekers.


Refugees are people who flee persecution or war. They are seeking asylum somewhere outside of their home country because returning home is too dangerous. Refugees are officially defined and recognized by the UNHCR. They have specific protections according to international law, including the fact that they should not be sent back to their home country. Other official protections include governmental procedures (done by the receiving country’s government) to ensure they are granted safety and dignity (source).

The “Refugee Crisis” in 2015 was officially acknowledged by the UNHCR that the majority of people in the movement were refugees since they were coming from recognized conflict zones and could not safely stay in their homelands.

Asylum Seeker

Though often interchanged with the term refugee, an asylum seeker is technically a little bit different. Every refugee is seeking asylum until the point when they are granted asylum. Sometimes people who are fleeing unrecognized conflicts or are unsafe in their home countries for other reasons seek asylum abroad.

The decision of whether to recognize them as refugees depends on the individual case as well as the government of the receiving country. This decision is made with the international Refugee Status Determination (RSD) but is made primarily by the country rather than the UNHCR. The RSD process can take a very long time. If a country is not willing or able to make this determination, the UNHCR can step in to make the decision for them.


A migrant is someone who decides to move, usually to seek a better life. This often to improved opportunities for work, education, or reuniting with family. The key difference between a refugee and a migrant is the fact that migrants are able to return to their home without being in danger. Migrants don’t fall under international law in the same way that refugees do. Instead, each individual country has its own set of laws for migrants (source).

Because of this difference in laws for migrants and refugees, recognizing a group or an individual as one or the other can be extremely politically charged. The “Refugee Crisis,” while mostly consisting of refugees, also included smaller numbers of migrants.


Further reading: Today’s protections of refugees, as well as the distinctions between refugees and migrants, are primarily defined by the 1951 Refugee Convention, the 1969 OAU Refugee Convention, and the New York Declaration for Refugees and Migrants. You can find more general information about migrants and refugees from UNHCR’s FAQ, as well as more in-depth information about the international laws on refugees on UNHCR’s website.


Hannah Myott
Hannah Myott Hannah is a student and freelance writer from Minnesota. If she's not writing then she's probably bouldering, playing board games, throwing a frisbee, playing soccer, or drinking craft beer.

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