A policeman tries to stop a migrant from boarding a train through a window at Gevgelija train station in Macedonia, close to the border with Greece, on August 15, 2015.

People who move from one country to another are international migrants. This umbrella term covers both economic migrants, who leave home seeking economic opportunity, and refugees, who flee their home countries due to conflict or persecution and fear for their safety if they return. These distinctions are important because different migrants are entitled to different rights and protections in the eyes of host governments and international organizations.


Economic migrants, who account for the majority of the world’s migrants, broadly fall into two categories: those who are authorized to work and those who are not. Many economic migrants obtain legal residency or work authorization through visa programs or other immigration processes and enjoy some of the same labor rights as the citizens of their host countries. When people migrate to a country without the permission or authorization of that country’s government, they can be deprived of those rights and find themselves in precarious situations. These migrants are called by different names, often for political effect: undocumented immigrants, irregular migrants, and illegal aliens.

The distinction between economic migrants with and without work authorization is straightforward. But the line between an economic migrant and a refugee is often blurred. Many people fleeing conflict are also looking to escape poverty. To complicate matters, governments, international organizations, and communities often disagree on who counts as a refugee. This can result in the uneven treatment of refugees worldwide.


Refugees and asylum seekers together account for only 10 percent of global migrants, making the complexity of their similarities and differences seem outsized. The UN Refugee Convention defines a refugee as any 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.

Although 145 nations agree to this definition, host governments get to decide whether to recognize someone as a refugee—to grant them asylum. When migrants request that recognition, they are called asylum seekers. If the host government grants those migrants asylum, they receive the protection that comes with an official refugee status, which may include the right to work, access to education and health care, and the rights and freedoms afforded to citizens and legal residents of that country. Sometimes, however, governments distinguish between refugees and asylum seekers in different ways. For example, the U.S. government distinguishes refugees from asylum seekers (or “asylees” if asylum status is granted) based on where they apply for protective status. Refugees, according to the U.S. government, are located outside the United States at the time of application; asylum seekers, on the other hand, have already reached the U.S. border.

By contrast, the United Nations considers migrants who flee war and persecution to be refugees, regardless of whether they have requested or been granted asylum. That means, for example, that the United Nations grants fleeing Syrians and Eritreans refugee status prima facie, or automatically.

Migration: Who's Who?

Life can be uncertain and dangerous for refugees on the path to asylum, and potentially even more so for those unable or unwilling to apply for that status. Everyone, regardless of whether they entered a country legally, has the right to apply for asylum, but the application process, including how to apply and in which country, can be difficult or confusing. Many countries, such as the United States, Canada, and most European Union (EU) member states, require people to apply for asylum in the first country in which they arrive. However, some, such as Sweden, have waived the first-entry rule, signaling a willingness to take in refugees who arrive in another country first. This can create a hot potato effect in the EU, whereby the first country to receive refugees tries to quickly pass them on to another. For example, Croatia announced that it would not take asylum seekers but instead reroute them to Sweden.

Still, not everyone applies for asylum. Assimilating into an entirely new country and culture can prove extremely difficult, and many refugees just wait to return home instead. These refugees, as well as those with pending asylum claims and others who are unable or unwilling to apply, often remain in refugee camps and can face great uncertainty and hardship.

What happens to someone who flees their home country?

Whether for political, economic, or ideological reasons, host countries deny many asylum seekers’ applications, leaving them with few options. These refugees remain in limbo, go back to their home countries, or head to a new country.

What happens to someone unable to obtain asylum?

Negotiations between governments can also directly affect where refugees or asylum seekers go. In the European Union, a law called the Dublin Regulation establishes which EU member state is responsible for examining an asylum application submitted by someone who is not an EU citizen. Generally, according to the rule, the EU country where the asylum seeker first arrives is responsible for processing the application, which ensures that each case is processed by only one government. If asylum seekers register in one EU country and then travel to another, they can be sent back to the first country in a “Dublin transfer.”

In another example of international negotiation, the EU and Turkey struck a deal in 2016 that would allow the EU to send back “all new irregular migrants” who entered Greece through Turkey. In exchange, Turkey received economic aid, visa liberalization for Syrian refugees residing in Turkey and hoping to settle in EU countries, and visa-free travel to most of Europe for Turkish citizens.

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