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
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.