Refugee or Migrant?
Human migration presents the most controversial contemporary challenge for principles of human rights. Its scale and volatility have overwhelmed international response mechanisms and reshaped the landscape of national politics.

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 international human rights 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 either the Convention or the Protocol. “Asylum seekers” are entitled to 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 for their poor understanding of the distinction between refugees and migrant workers. Casual use of language inflamed the situation, pushing the European Union into a transactional settlement with Greece and Turkey. This trend towards prioritising political expediency over individual migrant rights 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 are often connected, rather than distinct, drivers of 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.

New York Declaration for Refugees and Migrants
Recent years have highlighted the fault lines of the global architecture for managing migration – confusion over definitions, failure to respect treaty obligations, recourse by migrants to unscrupulous traffickers for travel arrangements, and recourse by politicians to populist vilification of refugees and migrant workers.

Most of these problems have been long familiar to governments in the developing world, especially in sub-Saharan Africa, the Middle East and Southeast Asia. The sudden ascent of human migration to the top of the international political agenda during 2016 occurred because the richer countries of Europe found themselves in the front line.

The UN’s response in calling a summit in September 2016 raised hopes that innovative solutions might be found. But the New York Declaration for Refugees and Migrants, whilst unanimously adopted, offered little more than a stepping stone to more detailed negotiations.

An annex to the Declaration outlines a Comprehensive Refugee Response Framework, essentially a wish list, resolving to reduce pressures on host countries, to move refugees out of camps into local economies with work opportunities, supported by expanded resettlement quotas and greater endeavour for repatriation. The intention is to gain international agreement for a non-binding Global Compact for Refugees by the end of 2018.

The process is being led by the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR or “The UN Refugee Agency”). The agency combines a humanitarian role with mediation with the countries involved, seeking practical solutions to the difficult situations that often prevail.

A parallel process seeks approval for a Global Compact for Migration, aiming to facilitate safe, orderly and regular migration through international coordination. This will be led by the International Organization for Migration. The IOM was elevated to the status of UN agency in 2016, strengthening its role in logistical support for movements of migrant workers.

The choice of this dual track response to the New York Declaration conveys the intention to sustain a clear distinction between refugees and migrant workers. However, it remains possible that the conditions for obtaining refugee status will be reviewed.

There can be no satisfactory outcome for these Compacts unless the richer countries agree to enhance significantly the financial and hosting burden that underpins all the potential solutions. There is no sign of the political leadership necessary to step into this sensitive territory.

Indeed, there are signs of trouble in Europe where Hungary, Poland and the Czech Republic have refused to implement modest resettlement quotas agreed by virtue of their membership of the European Union. And the US decision to withdraw from the Compact for Migration represents a significant setback.

Refugee Statistics
At the end of 2016, 22.5 million people were classified as refugees, alongside a further 2.8 million who were registered asylum-seekers. The refugee figure includes 5.3 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.

The three largest host countries at the end of 2016 were the “front line states” of Turkey, Pakistan and Lebanon, each accommodating more than one million refugees. The figure in Turkey was 2.9 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 84% of the burden of hosting refugees falls on low or middle-income 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.

There were 40.3 million IDPs at the end of 2016, 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 65.6 million at the end of 2016 for refugees, asylum-seekers and IDPs is the highest since records began.


more Human Rights briefings (updated March 2018)
Political Backlash
Universal Declaration of Human Rights
International Human Rights Law
Women’s Rights in International Law
Rights of Refugees and Migrant Workers
Human Rights Law Enforcement
Rights-based Development
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