Migrant or Refugee?

"The practice of granting asylum to people fleeing persecution in foreign lands is one of the earliest hallmarks of civilization. References to it have been found in texts written 3,500 years ago, during the blossoming of the great early empires in the Middle East such as the Hittites, Babylonians, Assyrians and ancient Egyptians. Over three millennia later, protecting refugees was made the core mandate of the UN refugee agency, which was set up to look after refugees, specifically those waiting to return home at the end of World War II." UNHCR Refugee Agency[1]

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Last week the Middle Eastern Law Student Association at MSU College of Law hosted a panel on the Syrian refugee crisis. Attending this event provided an opportunity to reflect on the legal ramifications of the crisis.


A Migrant Crisis?

A quick news search for "Europe" will turn up countless articles on the major influx of people from war-torn countries across Africa, the Middle East, and even European countries like Ukraine. From the New York Times: The Scale of the Migrant Crisis, From 160 to Millions [2]; from the Economist: Europe's Migrant Crisis - Relocation Quotas [3]; from Buzzfeed: Europe Still Doesn’t Have A Solution To The Migration Crisis[4]; from Vox: Remember the Migrant crisis? This Chart Shows it's Getting Worse [5]; the list goes on and on. Notice, however, that each article refers to the issue as a "Migrant Crisis". Is this really the best characterization?


Believe it or not, there is no standard definition of the term "migrant" under international law.[6] The United Nations, generally, defines a migrant as "an individual who has resided in a foreign country for more than one year irrespective of the causes, voluntary or involuntary".[6] Even more generally, a migrant is just someone "moving from one region, place, or country to another".[7] Migrants, then, leave a country for any number of reasons: school, work, family, violence, or no reason at all. Under the term "migrant", an emigrant is someone leaving a country while an immigrant is someone entering a country. As an umbrella term, the people entering Europe are migrants.

Refugees and Asylees

However, legal classifications of migrants do not end there. According to the Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, a refugee is a person who, "owing to wellfounded 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 or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country".[8] In other words, people fleeing religious persecution or violence based on their political beliefs are more than just migrant: they are refugees. Just like the term migrant is broken into emigrant and immigrant, a refugee is someone fleeing a country and an asylee is someone in another country seeking asylum (though the term asylee includes more than just refugees).


Does this Distinction Matter?

As with most areas of the law, definitions matter. Properly categorizing groups allows for proper application of the law. Under international law, countries can limit migration through immigration policies. Thus, if a migrant enters a country in violation of its immigration law, even if the migrant is fleeing dire poverty, the country can send the migrant back.[9] 

Refugees are treated differently. Under the Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, refugees are not to be sent back to their home countries if the danger they are fleeing is still present.[9] Moreover, refugees are supposed to receive social benefits and have access to asylum.[10] Thus, if a refugee enters a country, regardless of whether the refugee violated immigration law to get there, that country cannot simply send the refugee back.  

Pulling this together, classifying the issue as a Migrant Crisis suggests that Europe can do whatever it wants, including turning people away. If these people are refugees, though, there are legal obligations not to do this. Now, not everyone entering Europe is a refugee under international law: fleeing violence is not enough to trigger refugee status, there must be fear of persecution based on a protected status like race, religion, or membership in a political group. However, there are people among the many entering Europe who are fleeing persecution. These people are refugees and are entitled to certain protections once they reach Europe.



Classifying the current inflow of people into Europe as a "Migrant Crises" underscores the responsibility owned to the refugees entering Europe. Granted, not everyone who is migrating to Europe is a refugee, and, under international law, Europe is allowed to block from entering and send back non-refugee migrants. However, refugees are an especially vulnerable population that is entitled to certain protections. Treating the entire group as non-refugee migrants is a dangerous disservice. Much like how the United States would rather see a guilty person walk free than an innocent person convicted, countries should err on the side of letting in migrants rather than risk sending back refugees into danger. Giving the benefit of the doubt to this vulnerable population should call for a reclassification of the issue as a Refugee Crises to emphasize the legal obligations the world has to protect them.     


[1] Flowing Across Border, UNHCR http://www.unhcr.org/pages/49c3646c125.html (last visited Nov. 16, 2015).
[2] Gregor Aisch, et. al., The Scale of the Migrant Crisis, From 160 to Millions, NY TIMES (Sept. 22, 2015), http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2015/09/10/world/europe/scale-of-migrant-crisis-in-europe.html.
[3] The Data Team, Europe's Migrant Crisis - Relocation Quotas, ECONOMIST (Sept. 22, 2015), http://www.economist.com/node/21665640.
[4] Buzzfeed News Staff, Europe Still Doesn’t Have A Solution To The Migration Crisis, BUZZFEED (Sept. 18, 2015), http://www.buzzfeed.com/buzzfeednews/europe-still-doesnt-have-a-solution-to-the-migration-crisis#.kj2nBzDlg.
[5] Zack Beauchamp, Remember the Migrant crisis? This Chart Shows it's Getting Worse, VOX (Nov. 3, 2015), http://www.vox.com/2015/11/3/9663492/migrant-crisis-chart-mediterranean.
[6] Key Migration Terms, IOM, https://www.iom.int/key-migration-terms (last visited, Nov. 16, 2015).
[7] DICTIONARY.COM, http://dictionary.reference.com/  (last visited, Nov. 16, 2015).
[8] Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, July, 28, 1951, 189 U.N.T.S. 137, available at http://www.unhcr.org/3b66c2aa10.html.
[9] Somini Sengupta, Migrant or Refugee? There Is a Difference, with Legal Implications, NY TIMES (Aug. 27, 2015), http://www.nytimes.com/2015/08/28/world/migrants-refugees-europe-syria.html?_r=0.  
[10] Alan Travis, Migrants, Refugees and Asylum Seekers: What's the Difference?, THE GUARDIAN (Aug. 28, 2015), http://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/aug/28/migrants-refugees-and-asylum-seekers-whats-the-difference