Who Are Refugees, Asylum Seekers, IDPs, Migrants, and Immigrants?
Updated: Apr 30, 2021
By Nahfila Ali, Communications Assistant
With more people displaced from their homes than ever before (1), terms such as “refugee,” “asylum seeker,” “IDP,” “migrant,” and “immigrant” are frequently discussed in the news, making it important to understand the distinction between these categories. Each of these terms has a different meaning that is dependent on the reasons and situations pertaining to why said people are moving. The terms “refugee,” “asylum-seeker,” and “immigrant” are generally used to describe people moving from one country into another, while the terms “migrant” and “internally displaced person (IDP)” are used for people who have moved within their own country. What also determines these categories are elements that can cause or induce are to travel to another country, known as “push factors” and “pull factors.” Push factors are factors that motivate and force people to leave their home countries (such as an unstable economy, genocide, war, or persecution), and pull-factors are values that influence people to come to a new country (for instance, better economic conditions, job opportunities, or education).
“Refugee” is a word used to describe people who are fleeing from one country to another due to push factors. The UN’s 1951 Refugee Convention describes push factors in its definition of a refugee that is accepted under international law, stating that a refugee is “someone who is unable or unwilling to return to their country of origin owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion” (2). Refugees do not hold the option to return to their respective countries and are essentially forced to seek “refuge” elsewhere.
Refugee Camp in Haiti — photo exported from Canva with One Design Use License
“Asylum-seekers” are also motivated to leave for another country due to push factors; however, they are not granted the same rights as someone who has received refugee status. When a person arrives in another country for sanctuary, they must go through a lengthy process to even be considered a refugee. Before and during the process, they are considered to be asylum-seekers. This process is meant to determine that the asylum-seeker has a legitimate threat that they are escaping from in their home countries and that they essentially have no other options, other than to turn to the country they are seeking refuge in. Somebody who is considered a refugee is eligible to receive funding for education, healthcare, and housing accommodations, as well as advice on assimilation into the country where they have arrived. An asylum-seeker is someone who has not been granted these rights yet, because they are either waiting to start the process to receive refugee status, or waiting to see if they are eligible.
Because they are fleeing persecution, asylum seekers and refugees are generally much more unprepared upon arrival to their host country compared to immigrants. They often will not be familiar with the language of the country they have arrived in, as the urgency of their situation may mean that they have not been given the chance to learn about it beforehand like immigrants and migrants might have been able to.
Like refugees and asylum-seekers, internally displaced peoples (also known as IDPs) are people who are forced by push-factors to leave their homes and seek shelter elsewhere; the only difference is that they have not crossed international borders. Internally displaced people move away from hazards, like war and natural disasters, but stay within their own countries. This could be because they do not want to leave their own country and have to learn an entirely new way of life when they enter a new country, or it could be because they are not able to leave. The fact that they are sometimes unable to leave their countries, and are forced to live in a country where they are constantly fleeing, could lead them to “become trapped in zones of conflict, caught in the cross-fire and at risk of being used as pawns, targets or human shields by the belligerent,” which is a great risk to these people (3). Additionally, since they have not left the borders of their own country, internally displaced people are to be taken care of by their own country’s government, instead of the government of other countries the way immigrants, refugees, and asylum seekers would be. This situation often compounds the danger for IDPs because if they already have to flee from their homes in their own country, it is likely that their home government will be able to give them immediate attention.
People who move to new locations from their homes due to pull-factors are called migrants and immigrants. Unlike asylum-seekers or refugees, migrants and immigrants are not necessarily influenced by push-factors to move, and are able to move on to a new destination or return home if they wish to do so. The difference between these two groups, however, is the distance they travel. Migrants are people who move within their own country for “economic reasons such as seasonal work” as well as other pull-factors (4). Immigrants are people who move from one country to another, and their reasons for doing so vary (examples include better economic opportunities, family, jobs, etc).
(1) United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. “1 Per Cent of Humanity Displaced: UNHCR Global Trends Report.” UNHCR. Accessed July 14, 2020.
(2) United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. (n.d.). What is a refugee? Retrieved July 14, 2020, from https://www.unhcr.org/en-us/what-is-a-refugee.html
(3) “Questions and Answers about IDPs.” Accessed July 14, 2020. https://www.ohchr.org/EN/Issues/IDPersons/Pages/Issues.aspx.
(4) “Migrants, Asylum Seekers, Refugees and Immigrants: What's the Difference?,” December 11, 2018. https://www.rescue.org/article/migrants-asylum-seekers-refugees-and-immigrants-whats-difference.