Every day, people across the world make perhaps the most difficult decision they will ever face - to leave their home country behind and start a new life. Asylum seekers, refugees, and migrants are all individuals on the move, who have left their countries, but each term has a distinct meaning and it’s important to understand the differences. According to human rights organisation Amnesty International: “The terms refugee, asylum seeker, and migrant are used to describe people who have left their countries and crossed borders. The terms are often used interchangeably, but it is important to distinguish between them, as there is a legal difference.”

In December 2015, a report was prepared for the United Nations (UN) High Commission for Refugees by Cardiff School of Journalism, Media, and Cultural Studies. The analysis examined press coverage in Germany, Italy, Spain, Sweden, and the UK of the refugee and migrant crisis in the European Union. News stories from Germany and Sweden overwhelmingly used the terms “refugee” or “asylum seeker” while coverage in Italy and the UK more often used the word “migrant”. The research found these terms had an important impact on the tone of debate in each country.

The Welsh Government published its Nation of Sanctuary – Refugee and Asylum Seeker Plan in 2019. The document states: “An asylum seeker is a person fleeing persecution in his or her homeland. [They have] arrived in another country, made themselves known to the authorities, and exercised their legal right to apply for asylum. They will be awaiting the outcome of their asylum claim.” Every refugee starts as an asylum seeker. The person applying for asylum on the grounds returning to their country would lead to persecution due to race, religion, nationality, or political beliefs. An asylum seeker claims to be a refugee, but their claim hasn’t been assessed yet. They remain an asylum seeker while their application is pending and not every applicant will be recognised as a refugee.

Figures from the UN Refugee Agency show more than 82 million people around the world have been forced to flee their homes. Covid-19 has only made the challenge of seeking safety more difficult. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Filippo Grandi, said more than 1.5 million refugees from Ukraine had crossed into neighbouring countries within 10 days of the Russian invasion. Writing on Twitter on March 6 from Poland, he described it as “the fastest-growing refugee crisis in Europe since World War II”.
The UN Refugee Agency said: “At a time when one in every 95 people on earth has fled their home as a result of conflict or persecution, our work is more important than ever before.” A refugee is a person who has been forced to leave their country in order to escape war, persecution, or natural disaster. They cross national borders to seek safety in nearby countries. According to Amnesty International: “The risks to their safety and life were so great, they felt they had no choice but to leave and seek safety outside their country.” Refugees are protected by international law, in particular the 1951 Refugee Convention. When someone is acknowledged as a refugee, they have a certain set of rights. A crucial part of being recognised is Refugee Status Determination, but the process can be long and complicated.

In the UK, the Home Office is responsible for this process of determining whether an asylum seeker meets the definition of a refugee. Refugees cannot return home safely, but migrants usually can. The distinction is important for governments because countries handle migrants under their own immigration laws. A migrant chooses to move, not because of conflict or persecution, but mainly to improve his or her life. That might be to find work, access better education, or be with family. Amnesty International says: “Some migrants leave their country because they want to work, study or join the family. Others feel they must leave because of poverty, political unrest, gang violence, natural disasters, or other serious circumstances." There is no internationally accepted legal definition of a migrant.

Lots of people don’t fit the legal definition of a refugee but could nevertheless be in danger if they went home. “It is important to understand that, just because migrants do not flee persecution, they are still entitled to have all their human rights protected and respected.”

Overall, it’s important to understand the terms and use them correctly, but in practice, categorising someone as an “asylum seeker” or an “economic migrant” cannot always reflect their complex situation, as a person’s priorities and motives can change during their journey.

Written By Liz Day

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