Differences between migrants, refugees and displaced persons

Migrants, refugees and displaced people are words that we hear frequently in the media and social networks. The movements of human groups from one place to another are news almost everywhere in the world. Migration crises are having a huge social, economic and political impact in various regions of the planet.

What are the differences between a migrant, a refugee and a displaced person?

For the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) using the terms correctly is important. It is relevant not only to report accurately, making the difference clear also contributes to not harming these populations to governments. Confusing one with another could have consequences on the life and safety especially of refugees and displaced persons.

The reason is that the treatment is different. Each country has its own laws and procedures regarding immigration, and it is these that apply to migrants. However, countries apply asylum and protection standards for refugees. These norms are contemplated both in the legislation of each nation and in international law. It means that countries have commitments in the protection of refugees.

For the displaced
The national laws of the country of origin of the displaced person apply. They are also assisted by international human rights law, in addition to international humanitarian law that is applied in cases of war.

Characteristics of migrants, refugees and displaced persons


For the International Organization for Migration (IOM), the Migrants are people who move from their countries of origin for “personal convenience”. This action, according to the agency, is the result of a decision made freely.

According to the definition of the UNHCR, the migrants are characterized by the following:

  • They leave their homes to improve their living conditions, find better work or study opportunities, or to meet with relatives.
  • About them does not pose a direct threat of persecution or death.
  • They continue to receive protection from their government.
  • Unlike refugees, they cannot apply for asylum.

Migrants, according to the IOM, are documented and undocumented. Those who have “papers” emigrate with an employment contract, or avail themselves of the right of reunion with their relatives.

Undocumented migrants enter another country illegally, through irregular routes, or by remaining in that territory after the legal period of stay has expired. A refugee can become an illegal migrant when, upon termination of asylum, he does not leave the host country.


The refugeesAccording to UNHCR, they are the “people who flee to save their lives or preserve their freedom”. They are characterized by:

  • Fleeing armed conflicts, violence or persecution for reasons of race, religion, sex, political opinion, belonging to a social group or nationality.
  • Living in such a dangerous and intolerable situation that they are forced to seek safety by crossing an international border in search of protection. The objective of their displacement to nearby countries is to be declared as refugees.
  • Not being able to go home because it is too dangerous. They do not count and cannot request the protection of their country.
  • Have the right to request asylum as long as they show that they are fleeing conflict or being persecuted.

When there are massive flight from countries at war, migrants are considered refugees “at first sight”. It is a protection status that is given while the asylum request is made and analyzed. It is estimated that each year about one million people apply for asylum.


The displaced are defined by the UNHCR as people who leave their homes for the same reasons as refugees, wars and persecution. The difference is that the displaced do not cross the borders of their country of origin. Their movements are internal, towards safer areas within the same nation. They remain under the protection of their government, even when the government itself is the cause of their flight. This means that they retain their citizenship rights.

People affected by natural disasters who have had to move from their usual places of residence are also considered internally displaced.

Refugees on the rise

Unhcr revealed in 2018 that they existed all over the world 68.5 million people who had forcibly left their homes. Of the total, 40 million were internally displaced persons, 25.4 million were refugees, and 3.1 million were asylum seekers.

85% of the displaced were in developing countries, and 57% of the world’s refugees came from Syria, Afghanistan and South Sudan. Among the displaced were 10 million stateless people. They were denied nationality and access to basic rights such as education, health, employment and freedom of movement.

The number of refugees released last year was the highest on record. This is mainly because Armed conflicts persist without resolution, violence, terrorism and famine.

However, the number of internally displaced persons decreased for the third consecutive year.
Colombia remained at the top of the list of countries with the most displaced people, with 7.7 million. It was followed by Syria, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Iraq.

As to the migrants, according to United Nations calculations, in 2017 they numbered 258 million people. The largest migratory flow occurs from south to north. Today the largest migrant population comes from the southern countries of the planet.

International organizations provide that migrants as a consequence of climate change will increase in the coming years. The scarcity of resources for environmental reasons in vulnerable countries economically, politically and institutionally, could create conditions for large-scale migration. According to the UNHCR, it could be between 250 and 1 billion human beings who migrate due to climate change. It is a great concern at a global level, which is why organizations such as the IOM have financed projects that respond to climate migration.

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