Migrants have been in the news a lot lately. So have refugees. Quite often, they’re being referred to in the same news story. Here’s why that is.
A refugee is fleeing armed conflict or persecution. The term refers to a very specific group of people who live in a situation “often so perilous and intolerable that they cross national borders to seek safety in nearby countries.” They’re recognized by the U.N. — making them eligible for assistance — because it’s simply too dangerous for them to return home.
In other words, if they don’t leave they face potentially deadly consequences. You can read the full U.N. definition of a refugee and the process for becoming officially recognized as one here.
Syrians who have applied for asylum, by EU country applied to, 2011 – July 2015
If a person’s asylum application is approved, they are then officially considered a refugee and therefore qualify for international protection. Roll over the map to see the figures.
Migrant is, in general, a much broader term. While there’s no formal, universally-accepted definition, the key to the word migrant is choice: According to IOM, it covers “all cases where the decision to migrate was taken freely by the individual concerned for reasons of “personal convenience” and without intervention of an external compelling factor.”
‘Migrant’ can be used to describe whenever people move, regardless if it’s across international lines. So when you move from Michigan to Washington, D.C. for work, or move with your fiancee from Australia to London, or move from one county to the next because the schools are better, that is all considered migration. So to when someone from El Salvador goes to Texas for seasonal farm work picking produce.
The U.N. defines it similarly: “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. Unlike refugees who cannot safely return home, migrants face no such impediment to return. If they choose to return home, they will continue to receive the protection of their government.”
In one sentence
Refugees are forced to leave, while migrants choose to.
Isn’t that too simple?
Using hard and fast definitions can ignore at least some of the complexity and nuance in why people leave one place for another. While the vast majority of people in the current situation are fleeing war in Syria, many others are from Afghanistan, Iraq, Kosovo, Somalia — all places that are known to produce migrants, asylum seekers, and refugees.
Noting that economic and other migrants are among the hundreds of thousands of refugees in the current crisis, Joel Millman, spokesperson for the International Organization for Migration, added that doesn’t mean they deserve poor treatment.
“Of all the people that are in this condition, nobody sacrifices their right to life, or to not to be raped, or not to be forced into prostitution, just because they might be economic migrants,” Millman said. “Making that decision to engage a smuggler does not then deprive you of all your human dignity. And that’s what we need to remind people of when we discuss economic migrants.”
More than four million people have fled Syria since the onset of the civil war. As the news reports and images this summer have shown, these are harrowing — sometimes deadly — journeys. Words can be clumsy in accurately describing the labyrinth of a situation, drilling it down to a single term, that can end with suffocation in a truck or drowning at sea.
Conflicting categorizations and situations can pose challenges for how governments can respond. Refugees are entitled to certain legal protections under the 1951 Refugee Convention, perhaps most important of which is that they cannot be sent back to where the situation is so bad that their life or freedom is threatened.
Migrants do not have these protections.
The crisis situation
There are more than 19 million people who have been forced to flee their homes because of war, oppression, and persecution, a figure that grows by an estimated 42,500 people each day. Syria has seen a fifth of its people leave since the civil war began four years ago.
Many of the four million Syrian refugees, along with refugees fleeing wars or the atrocities of ISIL in Africa and the Middle East, are trying to make their way by foot and boat to Europe. Thousands have poured into Germany and Austria over the past few days alone.
Although the route is perilous and the possibility of death is high — some 2,800 are dead or missing after trying to cross the Mediterranean this year in flimsy, overcrowded boats — those who are fleeing would rather take those chances rather than remain in the deplorable situation of their home countries.
While many cross via land routes (including the occasional route through the Arctic Circle into Norway), the most often taken routes are by sea. More than 364,000 people have reached Europe’s shores so far this year, according to the IOM.
U.N. and EU leaders have held several emergency talks, including one late-night session that lasted in Monday morning, over how to handle the refugee crisis. Germany, which expects to see a staggering wave of 800,000 people enter the country this year , agreed to spend $6.6 billion to support the asylum seekers. It also came up with a plan to make it easier to quickly deport migrants who do not qualify and are from nations that are considered more stable, like Albania, Kosovo, and Montenegro.
The U.K. announced it would resettle 20,000 refugees over five years, and France promised space for 24,000 refugees over the next two years. The European Commission planned to announce a proposal on Wednesday for mandatory quotas within the EU to relocate 120,000 refugees.
Hungry, however, recently closed its southern border with Serbia with a razor-wire fence, beefed up police along the borders, cancelled international trains to Western Europe, and Prime Minister Viktor Orban has threatened those trying to pass through with imprisonment or arrest. Stranded in Hungary against their will for days, thousands set out to walk the 110-mile stretch from Budapest to the Austrian border, from where many planned to then continue on to Germany.
The U.S. has not yet weighed in on whether it will help resettle any of the refugees, although it has pledged $507 million in aid.