3.1. Migrants, immigrants, and refugees

In times of crisis or political tension, words can be used and abused for different reasons. That has certainly been the case with the words ‘migrant’, ‘refugee’ and ‘asylum-seeker’, which have often been used to mean one and the same thing. Each word, however, has a distinct meaning. And from the point of view of international aid and development, they carry different duties and consequences. Confusing these words can mean the difference between life and death.

Image source: UNHCR, 2016

In theory, at least, the word ‘migrant’ is a neutral and descriptive word. It means someone who moves, either temporarily or permanently, from one place, area or country of residence to another. There are various reasons for migration. Those who move to work or seek a better life are generally called ‘economic migrants’, but the term can also be used to refer to people who move for professional and personal reasons.

Despite its original meaning, the word is now often used negatively. For example, the broadcaster Al Jazeera said it would stop using the word migrant to refer to people trying to cross the Mediterranean because: “The word migrant has become a largely inaccurate umbrella term for this complex story.” Instead, it said, it would call it a “refugee crisis”.” (Al Jazeera, 2015).


A MIGRANT is someone who moves, either temporarily or permanently, from one place, area or country of residence to another.

A REFUGEE is a person who has been forced to leave their home country to escape war, persecution or natural disaster.

An ASYLUM-SEEKER is someone who claims to be a refugee but whose application has not been evaluated. This person would have applied for asylum because returning to his or her country would lead to persecution, because of race, religion, nationality or political beliefs. So not every asylum seeker will be recognised as a refugee, but every refugee is initially an asylum seeker.

The United Nations Convention relating to the Status of Refugees describes 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 or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country; or who, not having a nationality and being outside the country of his former habitual residence as a result of such events, is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to return to it.” (UN General Assembly, 1951)

It is important to remember that people have travelled into Europe for thousands of years, and there was immigration long before there were modern humans. For example, in the past, Germany welcomed migrants from Turkey and Vietnam, Sweden encouraged refugees from former Yugoslavia, and France recruited people from its former colonies, all due to an urgent need for workers with similar traditions and values. The United Kingdom has an even longer history of bringing families from Asia, Africa, and the Caribbean, to support growing demand for labour and expertise. In almost all cases, these immigrants have now become completely included into the host societies, enriching them in numerous ways (a particularly clear example of this is the fact that Indian cuisine is generally accepted today as the typical British food!).

Recent years have seen dramatic changes in the patterns of migration. A sudden rise in refugees arriving in the West from developing countries and from Eastern Europe has led to a wide range of responses – from fear and nationalism to sympathy and unity.

ASPIRE - Contact Information


House of Sports
Box 110 16
100 61 Stockholm

Privacy Policy

e-mail: info@engso.eu

ASPIRE - Twitter-Hashtag

Follow us on Facebook