Refugee Council of Australia
Refugee holding child with words Refugee or Migrant? Word choice matters

Who is a refugee? Who is an asylum seeker?

What is the difference between a refugee and migrant?


Who is an internally displaced person?

Internally displaced persons are people who are forced to flee their home, but remain within their national borders. Internally displaced persons are not refugees under the Refugee Convention.

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What is the difference between a refugee and a migrant?

People have been moving from one place to another since the beginning of time. The term ‘migration’ is used broadly to cover any movement of people. There are, however, many different types of migration.

Defining a ‘migrant’

People can migrate within the borders of the country in which they were born (‘internal migration’) or outside of the country (‘international migration’). All people move from one place to another, so they are both migrating to (‘immigrating’) and migrating from (‘emigrating’) from a place.

People can move for a short time, for a significant period, or forever. However, there is no agreement as to who counts as a ‘migrant’ , with different countries using the term differently. The UN defines a ‘long-term international migrant’ as being someone who is living in another country for at least a year.

In Australia, the term ‘migrant’ has traditionally been used to refer to someone who moves permanently to Australia, although there is an increasing trend towards more long-term temporary movement into Australia.

Reasons people move

People move for many different reasons, including to study, to work, to reunite with family, or to find safety. There can, and often is, more than one reason people move. The reasons people move can change during and after their journey. They may enter a country as a student, but when things change in their home country they may find themselves to be refugees.

Migrants and refugees

Although ‘migration’ is a very broad term that includes all kinds of movements, there is an important difference between the way we use the terms ‘migrants’ and ‘refugees’. ‘Migrants’ choose to move, mainly to improve their lives, and can always return home safely. ‘Refugees’ have to leave their State because they are fleeing conflict or persecution, and cannot return home safely. Another important category is the ‘internally displaced’, people who are (like refugees) forced to leave home but move within their own State. This is by far the largest category of people forcibly displaced.

The distinction between ‘migrants’ and ‘refugees’ is reflected in international law, with different treaties and bodies responsible for migrants and refugees. The distinction is also reflected in Australia’s policies, which include both a Migration Programme and a Refugee and a Humanitarian Program.

It is important to use the right terms because, by talking about ‘refugees’ as ‘migrants’, we can ignore the protections that are owed to refugees, and can undermine public support for them by failing to recognise the reasons they leave, and the reasons they cannot return.

The term ‘refugee’ has a specific legal meaning because of the widely accepted definition of a refugee in the Refugee Convention . A broader term that is often used to distinguish between people who choose to leave, and people who are forced to leave, is ‘forced migration’ . This also includes people who are forced to move because of natural or environmental disasters, chemical or nuclear disasters, famine, or development projects.

Although the reasons refugees and migrants leave may be different, it is not always easy to distinguish between a refugee and a migrant. For example, people who are persecuted usually find it very difficult to get a job. As well, refugees and migrants commonly use the same routes to get to their next country. This is often referred to as ‘mixed migration’ .

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