Who decides which migrants receive refugee status?
While the distinction between economic migrants with and without work authorization is straightforward, the line between an economic migrant and a refugee is often blurred, since many people fleeing conflict often 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.
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 ultimately get to decide whether to recognize someone as a refugee—through the process of granting them asylum.
Refugees and asylum seekers are fleeing for their safety.
Refugees and asylum seekers together account for only 10 percent of global migrants. The distinction between these two, though seemingly small, makes a big difference in how they are treated by governments and international organizations.
When migrants request that a host government recognize them as a refugee, they are called asylum seekers. If the host government grants those migrants asylum, they are referred to as asylees and 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 and asylees based on where and when 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, apply when they arrive at the U.S. border or shortly thereafter.
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 by a host country. That means, for example, that the United Nations grants fleeing Syrians and Eritreans refugee status prima facie, or automatically.
Seeking asylum is a difficult process.
Every migrant, 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, confusing, and time-consuming.