FACTBOX -Refugee, asylum seeker, migrant - what's the difference?

by Astrid Zweynert | azweynert | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Wednesday, 20 May 2015 16:39 GMT

A Rohingya child who recently arrived by boat has his picture taken for identification purposes at a shelter in Kuala Langsa, in Indonesia's Aceh Province, May 18, 2015. REUTERS/Roni Bintang

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Asylum seekers and migrants are often used interchangeably to describe people on the move

May 20 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Malaysia and Indonesia said on Wednesday they would offer shelter to 7,000 "boat people" adrift at sea in rickety boats, but, anxious not to encourage a fresh influx, made clear that their assistance was temporary and they would take no more.

The term "boat people" was used historically to describe people who fled Vietnam by boat after the Vietnam war while the terms refugees, asylum seekers and migrants are often used interchangeably to describe people on the move.

Here are some explanations of the key differences:

HOW DO YOU BECOME A REFUGEE?

A refugee is a person who has left his or her own country fearing persecution because of race, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, according to the United Nations. Refugees have no protection from their own state - indeed it is often their own government that is threatening to persecute them. Recognition as a refugee provides protection under international laws and conventions, mainly the 1951 U.N. Refugee Convention, and support from the U.N. refugee agency (UNHCR) with food, shelter and safety.

WHAT IF A COUNTRY HASN'T RATIFIED THE U.N. REFUGEE CONVENTION?

The U.N. can only make non-binding appeals to countries which have not ratified the convention, like Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand. Cambodia and the Philippines are the only countries in the 10-country Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) to have ratified the convention. This obliges them to give asylum seekers certain rights, which may include access to healthcare, education and the right to work, and to cooperate with the UNHCR.

WHAT ARE YOUR OPTIONS AS A REFUGEE?

Refugees have three options: repatriation to the country they fled from, resettlement elsewhere or integration into their host society. Contrary to popular perceptions, only 1 percent of the world's refugees benefit from resettlement. Only a small number of countries, led by the United States, Australia, Canada and the Nordic countries, have taken part in UNHCR resettlement programmes.

ARE ALL REFUGEES GRANTED CITIZENSHIP?

Most refugees are never granted citizenship - in the past decade just over 800,000 refugees were granted passports by their host countries, a tiny fraction of the global refugee population.

WHAT IS AN ASYLUM SEEKER?

An asylum seeker is someone seeking refugee status. Those judged to be neither refugees nor in need of any other form of international protection - such as being given a residence permit - can be sent back to their home countries. During mass movements of refugees, usually due to war, there is not enough capacity to conduct individual asylum interviews for everyone who has crossed borders, so such groups are often declared "prima facie" refugees.

WHAT ABOUT ECONOMIC MIGRANTS?

Migrants and refugees often travel in the same way. But economic migrants choose to leave their country to improve the future economic prospects of themselves and their families, whereas refugees have to move to save their lives or preserve their freedom.

(Reporting By Astrid Zweynert; Editing by Tim Pearce)

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