Recently, there’s been a lot of discussion about the rights of refugees and US obligations towards them. But what exactly defines a refugee as opposed to just a migrant? And what special rights and privileges do refugees enjoy, and why? We thought it was time to break down some of these terms, and show how the legal differences between them can have life-changing consequences.
Definitions at a glance
Much of the media coverage of refugees over the last couple years has centered on the Syria conflict, but there are millions of refugees worldwide from many different countries. Whether or not someone is classified as a refugee — as opposed to just a migrant — is extremely important, because refugees get special rights and protections under international law.
Refugees have a right to be protected by the country in which they seek asylum and can’t be forced to return home.
The most important of these protections is something called “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. But that’s not all — the 1951 Refugee Convention outlines many other rights, such as the right to education, employment, healthcare, freedom of movement, and liberty, among others.
However, as public and political support for refugees begins to wane in many parts of the world, some asylum seekers reach safety only to face discrimination and a struggle to find work and housing. Many are forced to move again to find employment or better access to services, such as education and health care.
“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 have to head elsewhere.”
This is when classifications can become tricky. Consider this example: Omar is a young man fleeing violence in Syria who makes a treacherous journey across the Mediterranean, arriving in Greece. There, he finds crowded facilities and little to no economic opportunities as the area is inundated with other refugees. Hearing that in Malmö he could get a decent job and an apartment, he leaves Greece and travels to Sweden. Is he now a migrant or a refugee?
Unfortunately, there is no simple answer, as different countries interpret the law in different ways. In most cases, however, the main issue is whether or not Omar claimed (and was granted) asylum in Greece. If someone claims asylum in one country, they are not entitled to claim it in another unless they apply for it and go through an approval process, which could take several years. 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.
In common practice, the “first country of asylum” principle has developed to mean that refugees are expected to seek asylum in the country to closest to their own that can offer them safety.
However, if Omar never officially applied for asylum in Greece, but simply passed through, his status is much less clear. While there is no obligation under the refugee convention (or any other instrument of international law) requiring refugees to seek asylum in a particular country, in common practice the “first country of asylum” principle has developed to mean that refugees are expected to seek asylum in the country to 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.
This issue came to the fore last summer when thousands of refugees migrated through Europe, passing through a number of countries that were safe but hostile to them, as they sought to reach a country that was openly welcoming, such as Germany or Sweden. It’s also the subject of controversy because, due to the role of traffickers and other agents in the movement of people and the way it’s often done (for example, with refugees concealed in trucks), it’s not clear how free individuals are to claim asylum in any country they’ve passed through. The EU is currently working on this issue, but in essence, if you are a refugee with a genuine claim for asylum, your claim shouldn’t be rejected simply because you didn’t claim asylum in the first country you came to. However, you may be passed from one country to another before your claim is determined.
Internally Displaced Persons
What would you do if a conflict erupted in your city? For most, the first option is to seek refuge someplace else within their own country, with the hope of returning home as soon as it is safe to do so.
“Being a refugee is a last resort,” said Bruell. “Often these people have been displaced internally several times.”
Although many internally displaced persons face the same difficulties as refugees, they are not granted the same rights under international law.
The official term for people in this situation is Internally Displaced Persons, or IDPs. Many IDPs end up staying with family members or friends who are willing to house them until they can go home. Many IDPs don’t have the means or ability to leave the country even if they wanted to, making them some of the world’s most vulnerable populations.
Conflict isn’t the only reason someone might become internally displaced. Changes in climate have led to increasingly severe weather-related natural disasters. Take the devastating effects of the recent El Niño weather pattern for example: according to the International Organization for Migration, between August 2015 and February 2016 more than 280,000 people in regions of Somalia that rely on sheep or cattle farming were displaced due to food insecurity brought on by drought.
Displaced persons still have rights, but some governments are unable or unwilling to provide that protection.
However, the phrase “internally displaced person” is a descriptive term and not a legal one. Although many IDPs face the same difficulties as refugees, they are not granted the same rights under international law. While the 1951 Convention and 1967 Protocol legally require signatories to provide assistance to refugees, the Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement are non-binding.
Displaced persons still have rights, e.g. the right to receive humanitarian assistance, be protected from physical violence, and enjoy freedom of movement. They also have the right to safely return home or to resettle elsewhere. But because of national sovereignty, it is the country in which a person is displaced that is primarily responsible for their assistance and protection, and some governments are unable or unwilling to provide that protection. IDPs that are suffering persecution at the hands of their own government are especially vulnerable.
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 terms 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.
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 much more vulnerable.
Consider Omar’s situation, having left Greece for Sweden. What if Sweden doesn’t recognize him as a refugee, or decides that Omar and his family are there illegally because they don’t have passports?
“Every migrant is a human being with human rights… We must reject intolerance, discrimination and policies driven by xenophobic rhetoric and the scapegoating of migrants.”
Many refugees find themselves in situations like this — desperate to provide for their families, 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,” afraid to complain, and vulnerable to abuses of their rights. Migrants in this situation may be exploited by employers, their children may be denied education, and they may not be able to access health care. This predicament has been made worse by rising nationalism and prejudice against immigrants in some countries.
“Every migrant is a human being with human rights,” said UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon on International Migrants Day. “We must reject intolerance, discrimination and policies driven by xenophobic rhetoric and the scapegoating of migrants.”
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