Migrants vs. Refugees

background image 185

A reader wonders about the use of these words in the media:

Please explain the difference between “migrants” and “refugees.” The news has provided nonstop coverage of migrants flocking to Europe from the Middle East and northern Africa. It seems to me these people should be more accurately described as refugees. Why are they suddenly considered migrants?

Applied to human beings, the word migrant has a basic meaning of “a person who moves temporarily or seasonally from place to place.” The noun is also used attributively, as in “migrant camps” and “migrant policies.”

In the United States, the most common use of migrant is in the context of agricultural workers:

Between one and three million migrant farm workers leave their homes every year to plant, cultivate, harvest, and pack fruits, vegetables and nuts in the U.S.


In Australia, the word migrant is commonly applied to immigrants who have come to make a permanent home in the country:

Settlement services are intended to assist new migrants to participate as soon and as fully as possible in Australia s economy and society.

A migrant chooses to leave home, but a refugee is forced to seek a place of safety elsewhere, often in a foreign country.

People flee their homes for causes that include war, religious persecution, political troubles, and natural disaster. The earliest use of the word refugee in English was in reference to Protestants who fled France in the seventeenth century.

In the media, the word migrant is sometimes used alone in reference to the hordes of people presently moving into Europe, but increasingly, the two words are used together:

Tens of thousands of migrants and refugees have entered Germany in recent weeks after making arduous journeys through multiple countries.

All of the people flooding into Europe from Syria and elsewhere are migrants, but not all are refugees according to the international legal definition.

As defined by international law, a refugee is a person who has fled a country to escape war or persecution and can prove it. Refugees are entitled to basic protections as defined by a United Nations convention. Verified refugees cannot be sent back to countries where their lives would be in danger. 

Migrants, on the other hand, move from one place to another for reasons that may be understandable, but are not sufficient to classify them as refugees. For example, some migrants are fleeing poverty. Others may have been living above poverty in their home countries, but decide to emigrate in search of better economic opportunities.

Note: Although people fleeing the devastation of natural disasters are often referred to as refugees, they are not at present included in the international legal definition.

Stop making those embarrassing mistakes! Subscribe to Daily Writing Tips today!

You will improve your English in only 5 minutes per day, guaranteed!

Each newsletter contains a writing tip, word of the day, and exercise!

You'll also get three bonus ebooks completely free!

5 thoughts on “Migrants vs. Refugees”

  1. I subscribed to Daily Writing Tips, or so I believe. I may be mistaken: PayPal is not a program I understand or desire to use.

    Harold T.Hartinger

  2. So, in other words, one may be voluntary and the other is a matter of survival, but in current societal jargon, they are political definitions that determine which rights or treatment a person may be entitled to. This article probably should also have included the definition of “immigrant” which means someone who left one place and moved to another with the intent of staying permanently. The media likes to play fast-and-loose with these words to suit their agenda(s) and the scenario(s) they are trying to portray, and with the current situation in this country they often leave off an operative adjective (“illegal,” also a political or judicial term) that can make a big difference in the public’s perception(s) of the circumstances.

Leave a Comment