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What’s the difference between ‘Refugees’ and ‘Migrants’?

Headlines continue to be dominated by the current refugee crisis in Europe, yet there is still some confusion regarding the difference between ‘refugees’ and ‘migrants’.

It is important to understand that the two terms are distinct from one another and each have their own legal implications. 

In 1951, following World War II, the Refugee Convention was negotiated. This defines a ‘refugee’ 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 to, or owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country.’ Simply put by The New York Times, a refugee (or ‘asylum seeker’) is a person who has ‘fled his or her country to escape war or persecution.’

According to Settlement Services International, refugees feel they have no choice but to leave their homes, belongings, friends and family to embark on a hazardous journey in search of safety. The UN Refugee Agency states that, so far this year, over 144,000 people have risked their lives attempting to reach Europe by sea, and identifies 15 priority countries of asylum along the central Mediterranean route. It is also estimated that, since the beginning of 2017, over 2,400 people have died or gone missing whilst undertaking this journey.

Under the 1951 Convention, its 1967 Protocol and agreements such as the 1969 OAU Refugee Convention, once in Europe, refugees can apply for political asylum or another protected status, and cannot be returned to a country that poses a threat to their lives. This is called non-refoulement.

The biggest refugee crisis since WWII occurred during 2015 and 2016, when more than 1.1 million people sought asylum in Europe. The Pew Research Center estimated that, in December of 2016, more than half were still waiting for their applications to be processed.

Although national asylum systems are in place to determine who is eligible for international protection, when there are huge numbers of individuals attempting to cross borders, it is not always possible to conduct interviews with everyone.

The term ‘migrant’, on the other hand, refers to a person who has made a conscious decision to move from one country to another. Unlike a refugee, a migrant is able to make necessary arrangements ahead of their move and will have had time to say goodbye to their loved ones. Whilst refugees are desperate for the protection another country can offer them, migrants are often following relatives who have already made the transition, or are seeking financial opportunities; hence they are often referred to as ‘economic migrants’.

Although the Convention of 1951 protects refugees from being sent back to their native countries, migrants without legal papers can be deported. In this way, as explained by The Telegraph, understanding the distinction between refugees and migrants is important, because ‘international law, including but not limited to the 1951 Refugee Convention and its additional 1967 Protocol, gives states a duty to give refuge to the former but not the latter’. This, of course, has an enormous impact on the vast number of people making the treacherous journey from one country to another.

Written by Megan Whiting for Grace & Green

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