Migrants or Refugees?

As thousands of people from the war-torn regions of the Middle-East (Syria, Iraq…) and North Africa (Libya…) cross the Mediterranean Sea to seek safety in Europe, the European media and politicians struggle to avoid using the term refugees and instead label them migrants. But what’s the difference?

migrants or refugees?


Birds migrate. The verb migrate simply means to move from one region to another. In the case of birds it is to find a suitable habitat (living space) according to the season. In the case of humans, it is usually to find work or better living conditions. A person who migrates is called a migrant. It therefore suits European politicians—many of whom, together with their NATO cronies, were largely responsible for causing the chaos in Iraq, Libya and Syria—to label those seeking shelter in Europe “migrants”.


A refuge is a shelter or safe place. A refugee is a person who has been forced to escape war, natural disaster, persecution etc to find refuge. The word comes from the French réfugié meaning “gone in search of refuge”. There are international laws governing countries’ responsibilities towards refugees so again it suits the perpetrators of the crisis not to label people escaping to Europe as refugees.

Why Al Jazeera will not say Mediterranean “migrants”

Two expressions come to mind:


  • olivier sukuma says:

    Thanks for your explanations about these to words,lastly can’t be confusing.

  • Khaled says:

    As a Syrian citizen still living in Syria, I can say that both words may be relevant to each and every one of my friends who left Syria during the crisis. Take for example, my -second year university student- neighbor who run off from Syria because of his military service. He had fled because of the fear that he might die at day one there. Consequently, we can call him a refugee.However, there is no doubt, that as soon as he arrives to the country of refuge he will try to carry on his schooling ; so in this case he will be an migrant not a refugee. Accordingly I think that the best word that can be used here is expatriate .By the way, expatriate (moghtareb) is used in Arabic to refer to the person who leaves home to live in a foreign country with totally different people.

  • raymund says:

    May I clarify for Layman regarding the term “immigrant” ? I believe that this word refers to newcomers who have emigrated to a new country and would have either assimilated or integrated with its society. Perhaps immigrants would be the first generation of settlers who emigrate much earlier. The USA is a good example of a country that received immigrants from Europe as well as Asia

  • Syed Najmul Hassan says:

    In my opinion the definition cited above by Brian resolves the issue. Further choosing any suitable topic for the purpose of teaching language carries no taboos

  • Ayman says:

    What about the word ” immigrant ” ??
    Refuge is a place where the subject goes seeking refuge. The refugee is the subject that seeks a refuge.

  • raymund says:

    Regarding the difference between both terms, I would understand a “migrant” as one who has decided to migrate to other countries in search for a better economic life. Migrants are not normally forced to leave for perceived “greener pastures” but migrate when their communities are being discriminated against by the majority. Good examples are found in Pakistan where christian communities face slander and churches are burnt and worshippers bombed because of their faith. It must be noted that the migrants affected have been from the professional classes. As to the second classification, I would say that a refugee seeks refuge in perceived friendly countries where human rights is enshrined in the nation states principles and social policies. The current “spin” on the semantiçs indicates individual political agendas and perhaps the legitimate fear of the intrusion of Muslim refugees from the Middle east as well as North Africa. Isil’s boast of infiltrating Muslim fighters among the war refugees cannot be discounted as its intention to set up caliphates in European countries.



  • Thorrun says:

    Who is to decide upon migrant or refugee?
    For the obvious unmentioned problem being that migrants are filling places deserved and needed by genuine refugees and every receiving country surely has an overload point before its own citizens choose to become migrants!

  • Javad Khademi says:

    The difference between migrant and refugee is clearly defined. Yet sometimes people use them wrongly.

  • Peter Gonzalez says:

    I defy anyone who is complaining about refugees to swap places with them to see the abysmal difference between a refugee and a migrant!
    The same was happening in the 60s in USA where the black people were treated worse than animals. White people (because they are white) think that anybody from any other race are inferior! And yet we are enjoying the fruits of discovery in astronomy, mathematics, architecture, numbers, etc. as a heritage passed on to us by the arabs. So we owe a great deal of gratitude to many other countries that don’t share the same skin colour than us.

  • Peter Gonzalez says:

    I was born in Argentina but because of the political, social, economical and military situation in the 70’s my family and I (wife and son) decided to migrate to other countries. I applied for USA, Canada, Brazil, South Africa and Australia and we were very lucky to get approval from Australia and here we are today. I was a migrant because, yes, I wanted to improve our living conditions and not because I was being persecuted for ideological, religious or political reason. We never considered ourselves “refugees” simply because we decided ourselves to lie a country that was not offering the conditions to improve our way of life! Refugees don’t have a choice but to leave their country of origin. Migrants on the other hand yes, they do have choices. So, we can never used the two words to define the refugees. Europe and USA are the culprits for inflicting so much misery into all these poor countries which they only used them to extract financial benefits that were never distributed in a fair way.
    Europe started to inflict all these calamities all over the globe in South America, Asia, Africa, China, and so many other places! Stop blaming refugees for trying to get away from violence and find a better way of life!

  • Anne says:

    An asylum-seeker is a person who claims asylum (protection) ie a person who claims they would be in danger if they were to return home and who has not yet been given refugee status in the first safe country in which they arrive. The British authorities are supposed to check that the individual has actually flown persecution. If they confirm that the individual would actually be in danger were they to return to the country from which they fled, then they will be given refugee status in Britain. On a personal level, I think that it is very unfortunate when people give away their savings to traffickers and then refuse to stay in the first country that offers them protection.

  • p s kumar says:

    refugee or migrant, it is state of mind of the persons. Whether to settle permanently or return when everything is OK in their hometown.

  • jairo says:

    Thank for a very good explanation of those words that easily we can confuse when we are talking to

  • Thorrun says:

    Refugee and Migrant are emotive words and used here specifically for that purpose – backed up by the illustration.
    Nobody has considered using the word integration at all and if it was put into practice by the powers that be, who are supposedly in control then attitudes would undoubtedly be different.
    If the collective societies who are so eager to place judgement upon the reason for the situation provided less breath and more energy towards resolving the cause, it would be considerably more helpful. It is human nature that people will attempt to travel to the land giving the best handout and maybe Europe’s wise ones should spend time in resolving that before condemning others for their own failures!

  • Sunho says:

    Thanks Editor.
    Defining words correctly is important but it looks like the writer wanted to imply his or her perspective to find a origin from where this crisis(i.e. Millions of migrants or refugees are fleeing their country due to a war or chaos) is generated and who is accountable for.

    The simple answer is Europe,NATO, and U.S.

  • Rose says:

    I strongly disagree with Craig McKenna. I think that it is perfectly right to take the context to teach vocabulary, specially when there is such an amount of info in the web about the topic. We have a right to know the difference and this is a matter that should be known by everyone. Besides English Club is not taking any sides in the article.

  • Zainal Abidin says:

    I express the same view as Brian.

  • Brian says:

    I think we should use the UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees) definitions. A refugee is a person fleeing war or persecution across international borders, who has no choice and cannot return home. A migrant is someone who chooses to move to improve their lives, for education or work or even because of hunger.

  • Rahim says:

    The good issue you have chosen.
    Many thanks

  • Cong Binh VAN says:

    For me, a international student studying in New Zealand, having a share with this content as follows:
    + Refugees are people who leave their home country under a stress or threat of polictics. It means that they are opposite with the present government in somehow aspects
    +Migrants are people who are seeking a better place for living, working…therefore we can use the word of “economic migrant”.

    By the way let me share my view point with clubmates. This is so greate to disuss some real life issues that hummans facing by language, English. And of course we can discuss about politics, one of the intersesting topics in life, provided that you are using english and knowledge in a good mamner.

    I love this club because I can learn many new things ( words, how to use language, and news) everyday

  • tracy says:

    Sorry the above should say

    “…as we are NOT the first place of refuge…”

    not “Awe are NOT…”

    a simple typing error

  • tracy says:

    A regugee will leave the country of refuge once their homeland is safe again,
    The fact that a number of so called refugees choose to stay in the other country makes them migrants.
    And yes it is true a refugee will not battle to cross several countries to get to the country of their choice.
    Refugees who travel through various countries are ones that are being saved BY the country they are travelling to.
    So yes, the proper word for the crisis facing the UK is MIGRANT Awe are NOT the first place of refuge and many who are trying to enter have no intention of leaving.

    But in the English classroom, discussing the political implications of specific examples is not correct. I would never discuss such political issues with students, as everyone is entitled to their own views and such discussion is for a politics class not an English class.

  • Edwige says:

    It is not that easy to comment such a topic when my English is insufficient. However, let’s try.

    The question is not the label assigned to these poor wretches. Migrants or refugees, that is not the question. Once again indeed, humanity faces the vilest of his monsters: the lost, the fall of his conscience, in favor of individualistic and selfish desires. Under the pretext of (absurd) ideals, once more human being is sacrificed. On altars of soulless gods, innocents are immolated, butchered, lapidated, shooted… And for an ephemeral glory, on a quest of an uncertain immortality, the future of the world, our hope, is drowned just like that little boy and his brother, and his mother, and many others – anonymous whose corpses never appear on the medias.
    Refugees or migrants, this is really not the issue. No matter the name given. Ending barbarism of religious and financial fundamentalists, therein lies the emergency. And meanwhile, allow people in distress a dignity life.
    The most odd in the whole mess that is throwing the world in chaos, is that before – hundred years before -, slavery was under duress. Nowadays, it is fully agreed. Thousands of people join groups to spread terror, giving away their consciousness and honor for a few illusions; pipe dreams of a paradise full of thousands virgins -even though actually, these virgins are little girls kidnapped -…pipe dreams of wealth and illusory power on souls and lands for evermore undefeated and free.

  • Alex says:

    I think that was an explicit definion between migrants and refugees that is useful to know.It’s good that English Club keeps up wih constant changes in the society because language is also constantly changing as well.It’s funny how mass-media tries to manipulate the reader by carefully planting two similar words in one’s head.Thank you for clearing things up for me.Learning new things every day!

  • Craig McKenna says:

    Bringing politics into the ESL classroom is getting pretty diabolical! There are enough lies, deceit, and disinformation being spread about the Refugees. however, to not explain why some of these are actually migrants is to be disingenuous. Those refugees that do not accept the safety of a country, but wish to move on for a better life then become ‘migrants’ and the correct term is ‘economic migrants’. A refugee, under the Geneava Convention, should apply for asylum in the first safe county they arrive at. Failure to do so strips them of the title ‘refugee’ and reclassifies them as ‘migrant’.

    Your expressions are opportunistic and in very bad taste. I’ve left Facebook.Looks like I will have to leave English Club. It is now turning into a ‘Propaganda Machine’. Pehaps you would like to explain that as your next topic?

  • Alexander says:

    As I’ve seen in Japan now starting to realise who must be blamed for all dark things around the globe.

  • João B. L. Ghizoni says:

    The word “refugees” at the very end of the text should be replaced by “migrants”, should it not?

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