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Differences between Refugees and Migrants

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Human Rights
Wordcount: 2501 words Published: 24th Apr 2019

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How do refugees differ from migrants? Is the distinction important? Why?

In the current public frenzy and political debate, the terms refugee and migrant are perceived as synonymous and are used interchangeably by political leaders and journalists. People choose to travel across borders due to a variety of reasons and under different circumstances. While political instability due to ongoing civil wars in some countries forces people to leave their homes, others voluntarily choose to migrate to another country in search of better economic conditions. This distinction, although undermined, holds severe legal consequences that can have a dire impact on the people in question.

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According to the 1951 Refugee Convention, a refugee is someone who flees their home country, and is reluctant to return, due to a “well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion,” (Castles, 222). Refugees are protected under international law, which includes the right to not be instantly deported to their home country and into harm’s way. On the other hand, a migrant is someone who makes a conscious decision to move to another country for economic reasons or for family reunions. Anyone who is not specifically fleeing war or personal prosecution is considered a migrant. The reason behind people’s decision to immigrate is one of the main differences between migrants and refugees; “while migrants may seek to escape harsh conditions of their own, like dire poverty, refugees escape conditions where they could face imprisonment, deprivation of basic rights, physical injury or worse” (Martinez).

Creating a distinction between ‘migrants’ and ‘refugees’ is important since each has different implications for the host country. Under the regulations of the 1951 Refugee Convention, refugees cannot be refused asylum and sent back to their home countries where their lives would be in danger. Since refugees don’t have the option to return to their homelands, they are more likely to invest in the host country-specific trends and culture. This is done mainly through learning the native language, becoming naturalized citizens or by enrolling children into local schools. Since refugees flee from their countries due to political instability, they are unable to keep in contact with family members in their home countries, which makes it more likely for them to create social connections in the host country. “This line of reasoning suggests that refugee immigrants are more likely to assimilate into the earnings growth path of the native-born population,” as well as the culture (Cortes). Economic migrants usually aim to simply earn money to improve their living standards and support their families. Since these migrants did not flee from their homes, they are able to maintain ties with their families in their home countries. The ability to maintain hereditary social connections prevents them from wanting to integrate into the local society.

While the willingness of the refugees to assimilate into the society is very evident, their ability to do so might be questionable. More often than not, refugees stand as a starkly different section of the society and this hindrance in their ability could be subjected to their different social and cultural backgrounds. On the other hand, since the entry of migrants is more filtered, it could be easier for the government to ensure that these individuals are capable of integrating into the society. Many refugees who flee to the United Kingdom (UK) lack fluency in English, which is one of the main barriers to social integration. The UK government introduced English for speakers of other languages (Esol) classes, which provide refugees with eight hours of free English tuition in the initial year to help them overcome their language barriers. However, these classes have not weaved the results that were expected. This is primarily because refugees belonging to the same country are grouped together and as a result, someone who has never learned to read or write English ends up in the same class as someone with a University degree and intermediate knowledge of English. Conversely, migrants are required to have proficiency in English before applying for a UK visa, which essentially eradicates the language barriers for them, thus making it easier for them to be able to integrate into the British society.

Since 2015, the European Refugee Crisis has induced a large-scale movement of refugees to the European Union (EU). Female women are often overlooked while devising policies to ensure proper integration of refugees into the host countries. While female refugees find it difficult to socially integrate into the society of the host country, female migrants find it harder to economically integrate into the host country’s labor force. According to a report published by the United Kingdom’s Survey on New Refugees (SNR), female refugees usually faired worse than male refugees in terms of literacy, health, housing and fluency in English. These drawbacks delay their integration into the British society by up to 21 months and marginalize them further. On the other hand, female migrants face challenges in the UK in terms of wage and job inequality. In 2018, employment figures published by public sector organizations in the UK reveal that “nine in 10 paid men more than women, with an overall gender pay gap of 14%” (Barr).  This pay gap is despite the fact that both male and female migrants are required to go through the same screening test, which deems them qualified to work in the UK in terms of literacy and fluency in English. These issues faced by migrant women prevent their climb up the social ladder. Thus, women belonging to both groups face recognizably different difficulties when they migrate to the UK and require different policies to target their specific needs.

 Migrants that pour into a country often directly contribute to the labor force and easily assimilate into the society. Their skill sets often align with the needs of the economy and this not only lands them good jobs but also makes them independent. The picture might not be as rosy for refugees who are often ‘dependent’ on the government. In the UK, although, many of them are highly educated “(38% have a university education), unemployment is very high (82%) and of those who are unemployed, nearly all rely mainly on government support” (Betts). Those willing to work are limited to only serving at ‘low-end’ jobs due to lack of language skills and knowledge of the British labor market. Moreover, most of them “have been traumatized by war, and arrive in vulnerable conditions; these factors complicate their integration into local markets” (Rozo). Host countries are forced to invest their resources to fulfill the crucial task of relieving the suffering of the refugee community and ensuring their security by providing asylum and bearing the additional expenses of accommodation. In doing so, they divert manpower from the national developmental activities, thus pressurizing the local administration. However, migrants do not need special assistance from the host government to ensure their settlement and security. They contribute positively to “demographic trends, and – depending on their skills and willingness to work – improve the ratio of active workers to non-active persons (e.g. pensioners), whilst also contributing to innovation, entrepreneurship and GDP growth” (Karakas). The time gap between when the refugees are allowed to use welfare benefits and when their work actually begins to contribute to an economy’s productive potential is significant.

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On the other hand, one can see an immediate effect on the host economy’s output when migrants begin to work. Moreover, economic migrants tend to work at high-skilled jobs, in fact, migrants fill “one in five skilled British jobs” (Paton). While migrants occupy the higher level jobs in the labor market, refugees are confined to the lower strata of the labor market. Migrants earn more and contribute more in terms of taxes and utilize fewer welfare resources, whereas refugees pay lower taxes and utilize more social benefits. “Altogether, international forced migration may have drastically different implications than the integration of economic migrants through an established migration system in developed countries” (Rozo). Thus, the net economic impact of migrants is usually positive, while that of refugees is negative.

These days, the definitions of the terms ‘refugee’ and ‘migrant’ are seen to converge to mean the same thing. This confusion may arise because the term ‘refugee’ has been defined by international law while there is no legal definition for the term “migrant” and so policymakers, media and the government do not pay attention to the difference in the denotations and connotations of the two varying groups of people in an economy. “Blurring the terms ‘refugees’ and ‘migrants’ takes attention away from the specific legal protections refugees require, such as protection from refoulement and from being penalized for crossing borders without authorization in order to seek safety” (UNHCR). Given the vagueness in definitions, the significance of seeking asylum within the two groups is also called into question. Particularly in today’s times with an increase in various refugee crises, public support for refugees and the institution of asylum is becoming all the more necessary. While governments must ensure that the human rights of migrants, as well as refugees, are respected, the legal and operational response for refugees must be given more importance because of their higher comparative vulnerabilities. Refugees lack protection from their country of origin while migrants have a fallback in terms of national embassies that are willing to protect their rights in cases of possible infringements.

While refugees are processed under the regulations of international law, migrants fall under the umbrella of domestic laws. Governments in the host countries can choose to deport the latter, while because refugees cannot be denied asylum, governments do not have the authority to send them back to their countries of origin. Having ratified the 1951 Refugee Convention, the UK is obliged to follow its protocols that define the responsibilities of nations that grant asylum to refugees. Due to this treaty, the recent decision of the UK to leave the EU will not have a major impact on the refugee movement. However, it will have a significant impact on migrants traveling to the UK. Brexit will allow the UK to modify its existing immigration laws and make them more stringent to make it exceedingly difficult for migrants to live in the UK. In this case, if the policymakers confuse a refugee as a migrant and deport them under the regulations of domestic law, they are in effect giving them a death sentence. Thus, the seemingly insignificant difference in the definitions of the two terms is, in fact, the difference between life and death for millions. “For this reason, United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees always refers to ‘refugees’ and ‘migrants’ separately, to maintain clarity about the causes and character of refugee movements and not to lose sight of the specific obligations owed to refugees under international law.”

Understanding the difference between ‘refugees’ and ‘migrants’ essentially saves millions of lives by allowing people belonging to the two groups to be processed under suitable laws. Refugees and migrants follow different patterns of social integration into host nations. Lack of proficiency in the local language is one the main obstacles to the social integration of refugees. If the government blurs these two terms and formulates policies that don’t specifically address the individual needs of each of these groups, social integration of refugees will be extremely difficult, despite their unrelenting willingness to do so. Moreover, gender-specific policies are required to address the additional problems that are faced by female refugees and migrants. Despite their distinct initial needs, refugee women eventually face similar problems as migrant women do with economic integration. Economically, the situation for migrants is much better as compared to that of refugees. Despite having high skill sets, refugees are unable to work at high paying jobs due to language barriers. As a result, they end up utilizing more benefits and contributing less to the economies of the host nations. Thus, refugees differ from migrants in terms of their impact on the host countries and this distinction is clearly important because it not only affects the lives of the two groups but also affects the host countries.


  • Barr, Caelainn, et al. “Gender Pay Gap Figures Reveal Eight in 10 UK Firms Pay Men More.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 4 Apr. 2018, www.theguardian.com/money/2018/apr/04/gender-pay-gap-figures-reveal-eight-in-10-uk-firms-pay-men-more.
  • Betts, Alexander, et al. “Talent Displaced: The Economic Lives of … – Deloitte US.” Deloitte, University of Oxford, www2.deloitte.com/content/dam/Deloitte/global/Documents/About-Deloitte/talent-displaced-syrian-refugees-europe.pdf.
  • Castles, Stephen, and Mark J. Miller. The Age of Migration: International Population Movements in the Modern World. 4th ed., Palgrave Macmillan, 2009.
  • Cortes, Kalena E. “Are Refugees Different From Economic Migrants? .” The Review of Economics and Statistics, May 2004.
  • Karakas, Cemal. Economic Challenges and Prospects of the Refugee Influx. European Parliamentary Research Service, Dec. 2015, www.europarl.europa.eu/RegData/etudes/BRIE/2015/572809/EPRS_BRI(2015)572809_EN.pdf
  • Martinez, Michael. “Migrant vs. Refugee: What’s the Difference.” CNN, Cable News Network, 8 Sept. 2015, edition.cnn.com/2015/09/08/world/what-is-difference-migrants-refugees/index.html.
  • Paton, Graeme. “Immigrants Fill One in Five Skilled British Jobs.” The Telegraph, Telegraph Media Group, 3 Nov. 2013, www.telegraph.co.uk/education/educationnews/10424148/Immigrants-fill-one-in-five-skilled-British-jobs.html.
  • Rozo, Sandra V., et al. “Blessing or Burden? The Impact of Refugees on Businesses in Host Countries.” 16 Feb. 2018.
  • UNHCR. ‘Refugees’ and ‘Migrants’ Frequently Asked Questions. 15 Mar. 2016, www.unhcr.org/hk/wp-content/uploads/sites/13/2016/04/FAQ-ahout-Refugees-and-Migrants.pdf.pdf


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