Syrian refugees in a UN camp

These terms are often used to mean the same thing, but each has a distinct meaning that carries different international consequences and obligations.


A refugee is a person that has fled armed conflict or persecution in their home country and is legally recognized as needing international protection because it’s too dangerous for them to return home. Refugees are protected under international law, which was created by the 1951 Refugee Convention. Once someone has been recognized as a refugee, they are supposed to be assisted in finding a job and integrating into society.


Asylum is protection granted by a government to someone who has left another country to escape being harmed. An asylum seeker is someone who claims to be a refugee but whose claim hasn’t been evaluated yet. Asylum seekers apply for asylum on the grounds that returning to his or her country would lead to persecution on account of nationality, race, religion, or political beliefs.

Countries are under an international obligation to consider claims for asylum and not to immediately return asylum seekers to the countries they are fleeing. The refugee convention states that asylum seekers must be given access to fair and efficient asylum procedures to ensure they live in dignity and safety while their claims are being processed.


An immigrant is someone who moves to another country. Some immigrants are legally in a country and have documents like green cards, work visas, or other kinds of permits. Other immigrants are in a country illegally and are referred to as illegal immigrantsundocumented immigrants, or illegal aliens. This means they do not have a green card or other valid legal permits.


Emigrants are people that leave a country or region. The same person can be an immigrant and an emigrant. For example, “When Nelda moved from Paris to New York, she was an emigrant from Paris and an immigrant to New York.”


A migrant is a person who makes a voluntary choice to leave their country to seek a better life elsewhere. Migrants aren’t generally being persecuted. A “migrant worker” is a person who migrates to another place to pursue work such as seasonal work. Migrant workers usually return to their home country when their work comes to an end, however, many stay illegally.

Migrant workers can also be referred to as expatriates or foreign workers, especially when they are invited to work in the hosting country.

Some migrant workers may be illegal immigrants. Some may even be slaves.

  1. It’s estimated that 50% of the world’s refugees are under the age of 18.
  2. Developing countries host 80% of the world’s refugees.
  3. In 2013, there were nearly 17 million refugees worldwide, with the highest number being Pakistan (1.6 million).

  1. – Migrants, refugees and asylum seekers: what’s the difference?
  2. – 11 Facts About Refugees

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