Refugee, Asylum-Seeker, Migrant, IDP: What’s the difference?

December 8, 2019

More than 70 million people worldwide have been forced to flee their homes, the majority of whom are children. Sometimes we use the different descriptions associated with displacement interchangeably — but here’s what each one means, and why it matters.

An average of one person is forcibly displaced every 2 seconds — but not all displacements are the same. What is the difference between a refugee and an asylum-seeker? What about a migrant versus an IDP? And why are these distinctions important? 

Refugees, asylum-seekers, and IDPs by the numbers 

According to the most recent data from the UNHCR, there are currently 70.8 million forcibly displaced people around the world. Of those…

  • 25.9 million are refugees — and more than half of these are under the age of 18
  • 3.5 million are asylum-seekers
  • 41.3 million are internally displaced people (IDPs)


Learn more about our work with displaced populations around the world

What is a refugee? 

Refugee is the classification for someone who is forced to flee their country of origin due to conflict, violence, or persecution. They are unwilling or unable to return based on a demonstrable threat due to their race, religion, political stance, or social status. 

Because of this, refugees receive a number of protections under international law, the most important being non-refoulement. This means that refugees have a right to be protected by the country in which they seek asylum, and can’t be forced to return home. The 1951 Refugee Convention also accords other rights including the rights to education, employment, healthcare, and freedom of movement.

However, there are some complications that come with being a refugee. “Refugees don’t always settle in the country in which they first sought asylum,” explains Abby Bruell, Concern’s Senior Policy Officer. “Often, they leave the first country because of economic hardships and go elsewhere.”

Abdullah Ahmadi with his two sons

Abdullah Ahmadi with his two sons (name changed for security reasons) was a policeman in Syria. He was forced to flee with his family, including his physically disabled son. Photo: Kevin Carroll

What is an asylum-seeker? 

Asylum-seeker is the classification for someone who is seeking international protection from danger in their country of origin, but whose claim for refugee status hasn’t been finally decided. Every refugee begins as an asylum-seeker, but not every asylum-seeker will be granted refugee status. 

Every refugee begins as an asylum-seeker, but not every asylum-seeker will be granted refugee status.

What is an IDP?

Internally displaced person (or IDP) is the classification for someone who is seeking refuge somewhere else within their own country as a result of conflict, epidemic, or natural disaster. Their hope is to return home as soon as it is safe to do so. 

We most often talk about refugees, but — as noted in the numbers above — there are far more IDPs in the world today. “Being a refugee is a last resort,” says Abby Bruell, who also notes that IDPs are often displaced internally several times over. 

IDP girl in South Sudan

A young girl stands in the doorway of her temporary home in the swamps of Unity State, South Sudan, where her family are internally displaced, hiding from conflict.

The phrase “internally displaced person” is a descriptive term and not a legal one. Although many IDPs face the same difficulties as refugees, they aren’t granted the same rights under international law. While assistance to refugees is a legal requirement, the principles on internal displacement are non-binding.

Displaced persons still have rights, including the right to receive humanitarian assistance, protection from physical violence, and freedom of movement. But because of national sovereignty, it is the country in which a person is displaced that is primarily responsible for their assistance and protection. Some governments are unable or unwilling to provide that protection. Many IDPs are forced into camps, and many lack the means or ability to leave their country of origin (even if they want to). So while this is the largest population of displaced people, it’s also one of the most vulnerable. 

IDPs form the largest population of displaced people, but they’re also one of the most vulnerable.

What is a migrant? 

Migrant is the classification for someone who is moving between temporary homes (within their origin country or across international borders). This is different from an immigrant, who makes the conscious decision to move and resettle in a new country. Migrants aren’t forced to leave their country of origin due to violence, but often have just as urgent needs to find a better future (often a better economic future). 

According to The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, there are currently 244 million people living outside their country of origin, all of whom are known collectively as “migrants.” This term covers an extremely broad range of people and circumstances — from “expats” who relocate through their job, to families fleeing violence, to individuals seeking better economic opportunities abroad.

Migrants aren’t forced to leave their country of origin due to violence, but often they have just as urgent needs to find a better future.

While legal migrants enjoy many rights and refugees have their own special protections, migrants who are traveling without valid passports or travel documents — including those who were forced to flee without those documents, or do not have them — are often much more vulnerable. 

Migrant vs. refugee: A (hypothetical) case study

Consider this example: Omar is a young man fleeing violence in Syria. He makes a treacherous journey across the Mediterranean, and arrives in Greece. There, he ends up in a camp that is overcrowded and there are few economic opportunities as the area. 

Omar hears from friends in Sweden that, if he moves there, he can get a decent job and apartment. So he leaves Greece and flies to Sweden. 

Is Omar a migrant or a refugee? 

Unfortunately, there is no simple answer, as different countries interpret the law in different ways. 

Technically, Omar began his journey in Greece as an asylum-seeker. The main issue would then be whether or not he claimed (and was granted) asylum there. If he did, he would not be entitled to claim asylum in Sweden as well, unless he applies for it and goes through an approval process that could take several years. 

Different countries interpret refugee laws in different ways.

So if a refugee leaves their country of asylum to seek better opportunities, they may be classified as a migrant in the new country ­— losing the special rights and protections granted to refugees.

However, if Omar never officially applied for asylum in Greece, his status is much less clear. There is no legal obligation for refugees to seek asylum in a particular country. However, the “first country of asylum” principle has means that refugees are commonly expected to seek asylum in the country closest to their own that can offer them safety. 

This has sometimes meant that an asylum-seeker who had the opportunity to claim asylum in a neighboring safe country but did not do so may be returned to that country for their claim to be determined.

Why all of this matters

In recent years  large numbers of people, mostly from sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East, have migrated across Europe, entering countries that are technically safe but in which their arrival was not welcomed. Their goal is to reach a country that is openly welcoming, such as Germany or Sweden. 

In some cases people are being trafficked against their will, or have paid an agent to get them to a “safe” destination.

Syrian child stands alone in an informal settlement in Laebanon

A Syrian child living in an informal settlement inear the city of Halba in Northern Lebanon. In Akaar district, Concern works with Syrian refugees in education, protection, shelter, hygiene promotion, and the provision of water and sanitation services.

Many refugees find themselves in situations like this. Desperate to provide a better life for their families after reaching a place of safety, they move to another country where they may not be given refugee status but stand a better chance of employment. However, without the special protections afforded refugees, they’re forced to live and work “under the radar,” vulnerable to abuses of their rights. Migrants in this situation may be exploited by employers, their children may be denied an education, and they may not be able to access health care. 

Concern’s work with refugees, asylum-seekers, migrants, and IDPs

Concern’s response to the world’s displacement crisis is in keeping with the Comprehensive Refugee Response Framework, approved by all 193 Member States of the United Nations in September, 2016. 

Rohingya refugee emergency response

Concern distributes food to Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh.

While every emergency situation has its own unique considerations and challenges, the CRRF gives a set of guidelines for approaching the predictable aspects of these crises. This includes: 

  1. Easing pressure on countries that welcome and host refugees
  2. Building self-reliance of refugees
  3. Expanding access to resettlement of refugees in third countries or offering other complementary pathways
  4. Fostering conditions that enable refugees to voluntarily return to their home countries

In 2018 alone, Concern responded to 66 emergencies in 20 countries — many of which included providing support within the CRRF to asylum seekers, refugees, and IDPs. Much of our work also impacts the lives of migrants and their families (often separated by international borders for months at a time). Our emergency response in 2018 reached 11.6 million people, with urgent necessities such as shelter, healthcare, and food as well as longer-term livelihoods trainings that benefit both displaced and host communities. 

Help support Concern’s work with refugees, asylum-seekers, IDPs, and other vulnerable people across the globe

Difference between Refugee, Asylum Seeker, IDP