There is a great deal of difference between the terms “refugee” and “migrant”.
The 1951 Refugee Convention, 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.”
According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), refugees are persons running away from armed conflict or persecution in their home country. Because of the danger in the refugee’s home country, he or she is forced to flee to a neighbouring country.
The situation of the refugee is often so dangerous and intolerable that they cross national borders by foot, or boat, without an entry permit, sometimes without passports and other required documents, to seek safety in nearby countries. Thus they become internationally recognized as “refugees” with access to assistance from Governments, UNHCR, and other organizations. They are so recognized because it is too dangerous for them to return home, and they need sanctuary elsewhere. These are people who cannot be denied entry without deadly consequences.
Refugees are entitled to basic protections under the 1951 convention and other international agreements. By law, refugees cannot be sent back to countries where their lives would be in danger.
The protection of refugees has many aspects. These include safety from being returned to the dangers they have fled and steps to ensure that their basic human rights are respected to allow them to live in dignity and safety while helping them to find a long-term solution. The country receiving the refugee assumes the responsibility for this protection. UNHCR therefore works closely with governments, advising and supporting them as needed to carry out their responsibilities. During the partition of India in 1947, 6 million Hindu and Sikh refugees fled newly formed Pakistan, abandoning their assets, homes, friends and sometimes family, and resettled in India. The responsibility of rehabilitating refugees was borne by the Indian government. Many refugees suffered the trauma of poverty, through the loss of their homes and their assets.
Briefly, a refugee is a person who has fled his or her country to escape war or persecution, and can prove it.
On the other hand, migrants choose to move to improve their lives by finding work, reunite with families, or for a better life. A migrant can always return to his homeland if he/she finds that the new life is not what he/she expected. They can at any time visit their friends and relatives in their homeland. Migrants do research before making the move to another country. They study the language and culture of the selected country, apply for jobs, and get proper entry documents to move to the country of their choice. 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.
Countries are free to deport migrants who arrive without legal papers or for any other reason such as criminal activities, which they cannot do with refugees under the 1951 convention. For individual governments, this distinction is important. Countries deal with migrants under their own immigration laws and processes.
Interchanging the two terms takes attention away from the specific legal protections refugees require. We need to treat all human beings with respect and dignity. We need to ensure that the human rights of migrants and refugees are respected equally. At the same time, we also need to provide an appropriate legal response for refugees, because of their particular predicament.
Consider the case of the Pacific islands of Kiribati and Tuvalu and the Indian Ocean islands of The Maldives. Forecasts have led experts to warn that due to rising sea levels the island countries of Kiribati, located in the central Pacific about 2,500 miles southwest of Hawaii, and the Maldives, in the Indian Ocean, could disappear within the next 30 to 60 years. The nation of Tuvalu, sited midway between Australia and Hawaii, could be gone in the next 50 years. Entire populations of these islands will have to relocate to another country. Would you call them refugees or migrants?