Resilience, Peace and Security

Migrant or refugee: what’s the difference?

Anne Althaus
Migration Law Officer, International Organization for Migration
Our Impact
What's the World Economic Forum doing to accelerate action on Resilience, Peace and Security?
The Big Picture
Explore and monitor how Migration is affecting economies, industries and global issues
A hand holding a looking glass by a lake
Crowdsource Innovation
Get involved with our crowdsourced digital platform to deliver impact at scale
Stay up to date:


Recent tragic international events, with millions of people on the move, have led to a debate on the proper terminology used to describe individuals who are leaving their places of residence to reach a location where they feel safe and can build a decent life. In this debate, some media agencies have declared they would now only use the term “refugee” when reporting on people crossing the Mediterranean or trying to reach Europe. Some commentators are even going as far as arguing that the word “migrant” should be ditched altogether, because it supposedly has a negative connotation and dehumanizes people. However, ditching the term migrant would be a mistake, and here is why.

Instead of inaccurately labelling everyone who crosses the Mediterranean – or the Gulf of Aden or the Bay of Bengal, for that matter – as refugees, it is time to reflect on the terminology and reclaim the word migrant. Media, policy-makers and politicians, among others, must not fall into the trap of oversimplification. Instead, they should be explaining what the term migrant means and entails, not just semantically, but also legally.

What does migrant mean?

The term migrant is a neutral one, and should remain so. In its general meaning, a migrant is a person who is moving or has moved across an international border or within a state away from his/her habitual place of residence. A person can be a migrant regardless of their legal status (regular or irregular), and of the voluntary or involuntary nature of the move.

There is no question that many of those crossing the Mediterranean are already recognized refugees or will be recognized as refugees, according to the Refugee Convention of 1951. However, many of these migrants are not refugees. Therefore, using this term to describe them all is not only wrong, it is also dangerous for the migrants who will not ultimately be recognized as refugees.

If the term migrant is ditched, as some are proposing, what term will be used to describe a little girl from Sierra Leone, crossing the sea in a dinghy to Lampedusa with her father? She is most likely not a refugee, because she has probably not been persecuted in present day Sierra Leone. Although the country was once plagued by brutal conflict, it has enjoyed many years of peace, meaning this little girl will not be able to obtain a “refugee-like” status – usually referred to as “subsidiary protection” – for people coming from zones of conflict where they risk irreparable harm. So, what is she, if not a migrant child? Being a migrant child entails rights. This term is not only semantic: it has legal implications that include  specific rights and obligations.

Economic migrant vs. refugee? Think again

The simplistic and classic dichotomy between “economic migrants” – which actually has no legal meaning in international law – and “refugees” is equally inaccurate, as it omits a whole range of other migrants, and therefore disregards the complexities of migration and legal protection regimes. There is indeed a myriad of other migrants, such as migrant children, victims of human trafficking, people migrating for health reasons, or those wanting to be reunited with their family, and people fleeing torture or inhumane treatment who are protected by the principle of non-refoulement (without necessarily being persecuted, and thus without necessarily being a refugee).

There are also migrants seeking work opportunities, who, in correct legal terms are “migrant workers”, whenever they are or have been engaged in a remunerated activity in a state in which they are not nationals.

All these migrants have human rights and specific sets of rights to protect them against discrimination and exploitation. Migrant workers, for example, are specifically protected by conventions drafted by the ILO and the ICRMW.

Any and every migrant has rights

It is paramount to stress that under international law, all migrants, regardless of their status, are entitled to legal protection of their rights, particularly their human rights. Admittedly, states deal with migrants under their own immigration laws and processes. Nevertheless, states have an obligation to apply the international norms they have committed to, through treaties and customary law, to everyone under their jurisdiction. This is very clear in relation to human rights law, refugee law, international humanitarian law, as well as international labour law and transnational criminal law.

The fact that every migrant has rights does not, however, mean they are allowed to stay in a particular country. It only means that, as long as a person is on the territory of a state, that state has jurisdiction and must correctly apply its international obligations and national legislation towards any and every migrant.

But the rhetoric used by the media and certain political actors – for example, the repeated use of the incorrect term “illegal migrant” (a person cannot be illegal) – creates a negative image of migrants, and feeds xenophobia, racism and stigmatization. This will not be solved by labelling all persons crossing the Mediterranean as refugees. On the contrary, there is a risk that host communities will develop an even stronger resentment towards migrants in general.

International organizations and the media therefore have a responsibility to preserve the term migrant, and promote and inform others about the rights of all persons and all migrants. The term migrant must be used appropriately, and both terms – migrant and refugee – should be used when referring to the movement of persons when it is apparent that refugees may constitute only one sub-section of the migrants. This would reflect the factual complexities of migration, as well as legal accuracy.

It is time that politicians, the media and other influential actors reaffirm that all migrants have rights, and that the correct application of international law to all migrants is critical. It is not a question of providing charity for these people – it is about accurately applying the norms that states have already adopted so as to protect human dignity, and consequently, stability and public order, for the benefit of all.

Author: Anne Althaus, Migration Law Officer, International Organization for Migration

Image: Migrants, hoping to cross into Hungary, walk along a railway track near the village of Horgos in Serbia, towards the border it shares with Hungary, September 1, 2015. REUTERS/Marko Djurica

Don't miss any update on this topic

Create a free account and access your personalized content collection with our latest publications and analyses.

Sign up for free

License and Republishing

World Economic Forum articles may be republished in accordance with the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International Public License, and in accordance with our Terms of Use.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and not the World Economic Forum.

World Economic Forum logo
Global Agenda

The Agenda Weekly

A weekly update of the most important issues driving the global agenda

Subscribe today

You can unsubscribe at any time using the link in our emails. For more details, review our privacy policy.

Why small island states need scaled finance and amplified action

Jorge Moreira da Silva

May 29, 2024

About Us



Partners & Members

  • Join Us

Language Editions

Privacy Policy & Terms of Service

© 2024 World Economic Forum