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What is the difference between migrants and refugees?

Lately, the Global Compact for migration has been making headlines. In the meantime, the Global Compact on Refugees was adopted on December 17th off the spotlights. The existence of two different compacts can be confusing, mainly because the terms migrants and refugees are often used interchangeably in the media and even by policy makers themselves. It is however important to understand the difference between the two.

The definition of a refugee can be found in the 1951 Refugee Convention and regional refugee instruments, as well as the Statute of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. Refugees are leaving their country of origin because of the fear of persecution, conflict, violence, or other circumstances that have seriously disturbed public order. Unlike migrants, refugees beneficiate of a specific protection under international law because it is too perilous for them to return home, and they consequently need refuge somewhere else. The basis of refugee protection lays in the principle of non-refoulement (Article 33 of the 1951 Refugee Convention). Non-refoulement means that refugees cannot be forcibly returned to the country they are fleeing as their life and freedom would be in danger. It is important not to mix up refugees and migrants as it can lead to problems, and sometimes even have deadly consequences, for refugees and asylum seekers.

Migrants, on the other hand, are leaving their countries for reasons that are often complex and multi-faceted, but their choice is to some extent voluntary. This is for example the case of economic migratants, students studying abroad or beneficiaries of family reunification programmes. However, all migrants do not choose to migrate. The term forced migrations, defines several cases where people must leave their homes but will be considered as migrants and not as refugees. For example, people that have to leave their homes because of natural disasters or because of severe famine will not be considered as refugees because they are not under danger of conflict or persecution and therefore, they do not correspond to the definition of refugees set by the 1951 Convention.

In other cases, people that do flee their homes but do not leave their countries for being persecuted or flee to a country in which the legal system does not provide specific protection for refugees, will still not be recognised as refugees. If they flee their homes but stay within the borders of their country, these migrants are called internally displaced persons or IDPs. And if someone that could qualify as a refugee flees to a country where refugee status is not legally established and recognised, then this person will be a migrant and not a refugee. This is because the notion of refugee is directly related to the specific protection granted to a person under international law.

The Global Compact on Refugees is composed of two parts. The Comprehensive Refugee Response Framework (CRRF) and the Programme of Action. The Programme of Action acknowledges that additional circumstances, including the displacement of people due to natural disasters or the movement of IDPs, should also lead to particular assistance. Point 53 of the Global Compact on Refugees foresees the possibility to take into account forced internal displacement in the preparedness measures to reception and admission of refugees. Point 63 also suggests the support for measures addressing forced displacement because of natural disasters. Point 89 further mentions the protection of IDPs. This is a first step in recognising the need for protection of this vulnerable group of migrants.

Author: Dr Fanny Tittel-Mosser

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