Currently, there are 82 million men, women and children escaping war, persecution and political turbulence. These are refugees and asylum seekers.

There are others who are looking for jobs or an education—they are usually called migrants—and people who want to live permanently in another country—immigrants.

There’s been confusion and debate over the use of these terms to describe the plight of those on the move. Here’s a closer look at the distinct differences between a refugee, asylum seeker, immigrant, and migrant.

Who is a refugee?

A refugee is someone who has been forced to flee his or her home because of war, violence or persecution, often without warning. They are unable to return home unless and until conditions in their native lands are safe for them again.

An official entity such as a government or the United Nations Refugee Agency determines whether a person seeking international protection meets the definition of a refugee, based on well-founded fear. 

Those who obtain refugee status are given protections under international laws and conventions and lifesaving support from aid agencies, including the International Rescue Committee.

A steady flow of people has been seen at the border between Ukraine and Poland since the conflict started.
More than 3 million people have crossed the border between Ukraine and Poland since the conflict started, in February 2022.
Photo: IRC / Francesco Pistilli

Who is an asylum seeker?

An asylum seeker is someone who is also seeking international protection from dangers in his or her home country, but whose claim for refugee status hasn’t yet been determined legally. Asylum seekers must apply for protection in the country of destination—meaning they must arrive at or cross a border in order to apply.

Then, they must be able to prove to authorities there that they meet the criteria to be covered by refugee protections. Not every asylum seeker will be recognised as a refugee.

Who is an immigrant?

An immigrant is someone who makes a conscious decision to leave his or her home and move to a foreign country with the intention of settling there. Immigrants often go through a lengthy vetting process to immigrate to a new country. Many become lawful permanent residents and eventually citizens.

Immigrants research their destinations, explore employment opportunities, and study the language of the country where they plan to live. Most importantly, they are free to return home whenever they choose.

Central American mother with her baby
Central American asylum seekers travelling to the U.S.-Mexico border.
Photo: Getty Images

Who is a migrant?

A migrant is someone who is moving from place to place (within his or her country or across borders). Similar to immigrants, they were not forced to leave their native countries because of persecution or violence, but rather are seeking better opportunities.

 

What if you only had 5 minutes to pack?

Every minute conflict and disaster force 20 people to flee their homes, often with mere seconds to make impossible choices about what to bring with them on a journey of unknown length to an unknown destination.