Refugee or Migrant Worker?

updated November 2016

People moving across national borders with no immediate intention of returning are classified either as migrant workers, voluntarily abandoning their homes to earn a better wage, or as political refugees forced to leave for their own safety.

This crucial distinction is the focus of current international law. The 1951 Refugee Convention defines refugees as people who have left their place of habitual residence, “owing to well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion.”

Originally confined to refugees from war-torn Europe, the Refugee Convention was extended by a 1967 Protocol. Migrants from any country are now entitled to seek asylum in one of the 148 countries which have signed the Convention. “Asylum seekers” can expect fair and prompt consideration of their claims for refugee status.

The European refugee crisis of 2016 shone an unfavourable light on both politicians and media in exposing their poor understanding of the distinction between refugees and migrant workers. Casual use of language inflamed the situation, pushing the European Union into a controversial settlement with Greece and Turkey that was criticised by the UN Refugee Agency. This transactional trend for responding to migration has continued in other aid packages for countries beyond European borders.

However, assessing claims for asylum has unquestionably become problematic. Political persecution and economic deprivation tend to be connected rather than distinct motivations for migration, and likely to impact entire communities as much as prominent individuals. Civil wars render living conditions impossible for families by virtue of geography, as much as political or economic status. The impact of climate change on migration will also loom large in the 21st century, bringing yet more ambiguity to the task of classifying displacement.

The multilateral body charged with supporting refugees is the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR or “The UN Refugee Agency”). It combines a humanitarian role with mediation with the countries involved, seeking practical solutions to the difficult situations that often prevail. The International Organization for Migration was elevated to the status of UN agency in 2016, strengthening its role in logistical support for movements of migrant workers.

Refugee Statistics

At the end of 2015, 21.3 million people were classified as refugees, alongside a further 3.2 million who were registered asylum-seekers. The refugee figure includes 5.2 million Palestinians, the people displaced by the 1948 Arab-Israeli war, together with their descendants. These Palestinian refugees are under the protection of a dedicated agency, the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East.

Refugees from Syria, Afghanistan and Somalia account for over half of the remaining 16.1 million, the consequence of civil wars and violent insurgency which the international community has been unable to resolve. As recently as 2010, Syria was itself a major host country, accommodating over a million refugees from war-torn Iraq.

The three largest host countries at the end of 2015 were the “front line states” of Turkey, Pakistan and Lebanon, each accommodating more than one million refugees. The figure in Turkey was 2.5 million, more than the whole of the European Union.

It is therefore a myth that the majority of refugees are located in developed countries. Few have the means to travel further than the nearest country and 86% of the burden of hosting refugees falls on developing countries which are least able to cope.

Statistics for refugees reflect only the narrowest definition of forced displacement. A much larger category relates to people who have been forced out of their homes by violent conflict but who remain within their national boundaries. A recent example is the succession of attacks by the Islamist armed group Boko Haram in north-eastern Nigeria which have increased the number of internally-displaced persons (IDPs) in that country to over two million.

There were 40.8 million IDPs at the end of 2015, almost double the number of refugees. However, refugee status for the purposes of the 1951 Convention cannot be granted unless a border is crossed. No protection under international law is available to IDPs.

The UN Refugee Agency is alarmed at the trend in aggregate numbers for these various categories of forced displacement brought about by conflict, political oppression and ethnic persecution. The total of 65.3 million at the end of 2015 for refugees, asylum-seekers and IDPs is the highest since records began.

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The Refugee Convention and the obligations it places on signatory countries such as Australia – explained by Professor Jane McAdam
from University of New South Wales TV


UNHCR Global Trends Data 2015
Conflict and persecution caused global forced displacement to escalate sharply in 2015.


Turkey: Top Refugee-Hosting Nation – whilst European countries squabble over tiny quotas, Turkey accommodated 1.59 million Syrian refugees by the end of 2014
from UNHCR

more Human Rights briefings
Political Backlash
Universal Declaration of Human Rights
Women’s Rights in International Law
Rights of Refugees and Migrant Workers
Human Rights Law Enforcement
Rights-based Development
Source material and useful links

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