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Refugee = Migrant ?

Choosing words is important

Refugee = Migrant ?

Today, we have tried to search the word refugee on Google Images. And then, we searched migrant. What came out? Images quite similar. They were full-of-people boats, sitting and waiting people, children in arms and hoping hands. So, what changes one to the others? Let’s try to answer this question taking into consideration UNHCR which is an authoritative source for migration flows.

These two words are not interchangeable. Each one has his own precise meaning and nuance. As a refugee, you have a legal status with international law protection measures. Refugee is someone that cannot have protection in his own country, because of persecution, wars, violence and other problems in regard of public order. States have the main task to provide protection. It is guaranteed by milestone refugee protection laws, such as: Geneva Convention (1951) and its Protocol (1967), OUA Convention (Organisation of African Unity). This last one deals with specific aspects of African refugees. Moreover, art. 14 of Universal Declaration of Human Rights, that claims the right of every human to ask for asylum, has to be reminded.

Article 33 Prohibition of expulsion or return (“refoulement”)

1. No Contracting State shall expel or return (“refouler”) a refugee in any manner whatsoever to the frontiers of territories where his life or freedom would be threatened on account of his race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion.

2. The benefit of the present provision may not, however, be claimed by a refugee whom there are reasonable grounds for regarding as a danger to the security of the country in which he is, or who, having been convicted by a final judgment of a particularly serious crime, constitutes a danger to the community of that country.

Migrant is a word without a legal uniform definition. Conventionally, migrants are assumed to migrate willingly. However, testimonies heard let us know that a unique factor for migration does not exist. Usually, a mix of reasons is what takes them to leave: job searching, improving leaving conditions, study reasons, family reunification, escape from natural disaster, hunger, extreme poverty, violation of human rights due to exploitation. Victims of trafficking are migrants too. Usually, they cannot be considered as asylum seekers. Anyway, they have to be protected and obviously not send back to their country. Legal experts apply on these victims a number of laws both from right of asylum and protection from trafficking laws.

Taking into consideration our borders and shores, who are people entering our country? Refugees or migrants? Actually, they are both! UNHCR use the word “refugee” for people who are running away from wars or persecutions crossing international borders. On the other hand, “migrant” is used for people who decide to move for reasons different from the ones that can be found inside the legal definition of refugee.

UNHCR infographic on Global Trends 2015 report.


It has to be underlined how host states apply differently the asylum right condition. What does it mean? Let’s talk about Europe. Historically, North European countries use asylum as a tool for selecting incoming migrants. These countries have the possibility to widely grant asylum, but they restrict economic migrants access. For this reason, Somali, Iraqi and Syrian communities are the majority in Sweden. Otherwise, South European countries grant less the asylum status, but they are more laxed in differentiating refugees and economic migrants.



Basically, refugee and migrant words could be seen as labels. Indeed, we should concentrate on people’s stories: departure, stop, departure again, working and another departure. Difficult and temporary relief moments are faced in the middle of the journey, as well as inhuman situations such as Libya’s ones. Sometimes, truth is that they tell fake stories, but only for having the chance to not cross again the border and build an alternative. A new life that they build through strength and tenacity. If they get some stink on it, they create a project, such as the ones narrated inside “Strane Straniere” docufilm by Elisa Amoruso. The movie regards foreign women working in Italy, telling the stories of Sonia, Sihem, Radi, Ana and Ljuba. Someone comes back to his own country because his home isn’t dangerous anymore. At first, coming back can be seen as a failure of the domestic project. Anyway, a future in their homeland can be build thanks to various supports. Fresnellia and his story (narrated on Agribusiness TV) is a good example. The programme talks about “Les Jus Freshy” setting up. It is a company specialised in the production of local fruit juice in Republic of Benin (West African state).


Don’t judge each day by the harvest you reap, but by the seeds you plant.
∼ Robert Louis Stevenson


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