Refugee, migrant, asylum seeker... Who is who?

There is an ongoing debate related to how to term Syrians, who have fled their home country in the past 6 years. Three prevalent terms used, especially in the media, to describe those who crossed the borders to seek refuge in another neighboring country: refugees, migrants and asylum seekers. Again, to stay aligned with internationally set and agreed upon definitions, this research will confine itself to the definition provided by the Convention and Protocol relating to the Status of Refugees, 1967. A refugee is someone:

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 ( art. 1, para 2).”

The Convention and Protocol relating to the Status of Refugees (1967) as well as a set of other international and regional legal texts (see Annex1) represent cornerstones of refugee protection expressing the basic rights States should afford to refugees. These rights include safety from being returned to the dangers they have fled; access to fair and efficient asylum procedures; support to find long-term solutions and insurances to live in dignity and safety while staying outside their home countries. While host countries bear the main responsibility for the protection of refugees entering their national borders, UN agencies (primarily the UNHCR) work closely with national states to advise and support the implementation of those responsibilities (UNHCR, 2016).

A migrant, on the other hand, is someone who enters another country not because of a direct threat directed to their own lives or that of their families; e.g. threat of persecution or death. A migrant moves to improve his/her life by finding work, better education, family reunion, or other reasons. Unlike refugees, migrants do not face impediments to return home, and can continue to receive the protection of their government.

Hence, the distinction between both terms is important. Countries, to which refugees moved to find refuge, (in the case of this research Jordan) are obliged - according to international laws to provide protection and ensure the provision of  dignified and safe live conditions (see below discussion about refugees’ right to education’). Whereas, in the case of migrants, countries deal with them under their own immigration laws and processes (UNHCR, 2016).

The term ‘refugees’ is often confused with ‘asylum seekers’. While both have crossed the national borders, the latter term refers to those who are still awaiting the determination of their status. Refugees are people who have already been granted protection, while asylum seekers can become refugees, if the local immigration authorities deem them as fitting the international definition of refugees (UNESCO, n.d.).