From the New York Times, 8/27/2015: The 1951 Refugee Convention (UNHCR), negotiated after World War II, defines a refugee as a person 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.” Anyone moving from one country to another is considered a migrant unless he or she is specifically fleeing war or persecution. Migrants may be fleeing dire poverty, or may be well-off and merely seeking better opportunities, or may be migrating to join relatives who have gone before them. There is an emerging debate about whether migrants fleeing their homes because of the effects of climate change — the desertification of the Sahel region, for example, or the sinking of coastal islands in Bangladesh— ought to be reclassified as refugees.
Countries are free to deport migrants who arrive without legal papers, which they cannot do with refugees under the 1951 convention. So it is not surprising that many politicians in Europe prefer to refer to everyone fleeing to the continent as migrants.
The United Nations refugee agency says that most of them are refugees, though some are considered migrants. “The majority of people arriving this year in Italy and Greece, especially, have been from countries mired in war or which otherwise are considered to be ‘refugee-producing,’ and for whom international protection is needed,” the refugee agency said. “However, a smaller proportion is from elsewhere, and for many of these individuals, the term ‘migrant’ would be correct.” Human traffickers make no such distinctions, though; refugees and migrants are often jammed into the same rickety boats for the crossing.
Admitting refugees is somewhat different in the United States. The State Department vets a select number of people — lately, around 70,000 a year — and admits them as refugees. Others who arrive in the country without legal papers can apply for political asylum; in that case, a judge decides on the merits of their claims.
From Habitat for Humanity: Refugees are people fleeing armed conflicts or persecution. There were 19.5 million of them worldwide at the end of 2014 according to UNHCR. Their situation is so perilous that they cross national borders to seek safety in nearby countries and become recognised as refugees with access to assistance from states and aid organisations. An important piece of this is that refugees are protected by international law, specifically the 1951 Refugee Convention. But even the terms refugee and asylum seeker are often confused.
An asylum seeker is someone who claims to be a refugee but whose claim hasn’t been evaluated. This person would have applied for asylum on the grounds that returning to his or her country would lead to persecution on account of race, religion, nationality or political beliefs. Someone is an asylum seeker for so long as their application is pending. So not every asylum seeker will be recognised as a refugee, but every refugee is initially an asylum seeker.
A vital part of being recognised as a refugee is Refugee Status Determination (RSD), a legal process that governments or UNHCR use to determine whether a person seeking international protection is considered a refugee under international, national or regional law. The process can be lengthy, complicated and is certainly imperfect. There is still no single uniting model for RSD. States do have the primary responsibility for determining the status of asylum seekers but UNHCR will step in where states are unable or unwilling.
Migrants choose to move not because of a direct threat or persecution but mainly to improve their lives:
- Finding work
- Seeking better education
- Reuniting with family
Unlike refugees who cannot safely return home, migrants can return home if they wish. This distinction is important for governments, since countries handle migrants under their own immigration laws and processes.