Let us start from the beginning. The term refugee and migrant have been present in the public
debate for a while now, but who are they actually?
The most ubiquitous definition of a refugee comes from the time when the world’s attentions was
focused on their plight following the catastrophic consequences of the Second World War. In 1951
the Refugee Convention was established with thousands of displaced Europeans in mind, and with its
focus much shifted to other regions of the world with the 1967 Protocol, as a legal document it
remains in force to this day.
The Refugee Convention states that a refugee is a person who “owing to 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 or, owing to such fear, is
unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country; or who, not having a nationality and being
outside the country of his former habitual residence as a result of such events, is unable or, owing to
such fear, is unwilling to return to it.”
Over 140 states have signed the convention, indicating their commitment to abide by its standards
and provide shelter and respect for foreigners seeking protection within their boundaries.
A migrant on the other hand is a broader category referring to any person who moves, usually across
an international border, with the intention of an extended stay for a range of purposes. It is very
common that refugees and economic migrants follow the same routes, use the same modes of
transport, and rely on the same networks.
But the list doesn’t end there. From the people affected by their circumstances there is also a cohort
who never crossed country boarders and consequently, its members are not considered refugees.
And yet, the problems facing internally displaced persons often are not that dissimilar from the
problems of refugees: they too are in a new place, escaping unrest for the fear of their life or
And then, there are asylum seekers, people who have moved to seek refugee protection but are yet
to receive an answer from the government where they have applied.
These definitions, however carefully crafted, run into some problems. After all, how could a few
sentences perfectly capture millions of life situations playing out over decades? Distinguishing
between an internally displaced person and a refugee is perhaps the least problematic as long as
international borders are clearly delineated and internationally recognized. But, the difference
between a refugee and a migrant can be so fine that the broad definitions following from the 1951
Convention leave room for interpretation. For example, a refugee is defined as a person fleeing as a
result of a threat to their life. It is commonly understood as a war or persecution, but would a person
at risk of famine brought about by a corrupt government be an economic migrant or a refugee, or fall
into both of these categories? Who gets to define what constitutes a legitimate risk to one’s life and
the immediacy of its acting that is entitled to protection under the Convention of Refugees? In the
same vein, should a person be entitled to refugee protection only in the country immediately
adjacent to their own, even if it cannot guarantee complete safety, or should the same protection
extend a continent away from their country of citizenship? To these questions there are no right
answers, but there certainly exist ones that manifest more compassion and understanding for
another person’s circumstances, and we want to advocate for them wholeheartedly.