Migrants, immigrants and refugees


Observing the news of the recent tragedy off the coast of Sicily which saw more than 300 people drowned and later other boat loads rescued, I feel obliged to clarify certain terminology which is being misused by journalists.

It may seem a bit pedantic in the face of the loss of life but it’s annoying to hear the terms migrant, immigrant and refugee so easily exchanged when they can’t be.

Yes, all three words refer to human movement but each has its own specific context.

A migrant is someone who moves from place to place for employment reasons, leaving his home temporarily for economic necessity.

An immigrant is a person who comes to live permanently in a new country, be it for personal or economic reasons.

In these times becoming a migrant or immigrant requires you to follow stringent regulations, waiting periods and stepping through various bureaucratic hoops along the journey.

The people who died near the island of Lampedusa, were refugees.


These men, women and children, from the North African states of Eritrea and Somalia were forced to flee their country because they feared for their lives.

Our friends at Wikipedia give us a good definition of a refugee:

A refugee is a person who is outside his or her country of origin or habitual residence because they have suffered (or fear) persecution on account of race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or because they are a member of a persecuted ‘social group’ or because they are fleeing a war. Such a person may be called an ‘asylum seeker’ until recognized by the state where they make a claim.

The 1951 United Nations Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees has adopted the following definition of a refugee (in Article 1.A.2):

[A]ny person who: owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality, and is unable to or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country.

So the following article about refugees fleeing towards Europe taken from ANSA Italy translated into english should read like this:

35,085 refugees have disembarked on the Italian coastline from the 1st of January 2013 until today. Of these 24,000 people or 73% have been classified as in need of asylum.

25,000 refugees have been saved from drowning at sea from the beginning of the year. Of those who have arrived by sea 9,805 were Syrian, 8,843 were Eritrean, 3,140 Somalian, 879 from Afghanistan and 1,058 from Mali. 21,000 of them departed from Libya and 8,000 from Egypt to make the attempt to reach Italy.

You must not mix up the concepts of migrant, immigrant and refugee so easily as you denigrate people who have lived legally and worked in countries other than their own by classifying them as illegal and you cannot flippantly suggest a displaced person choose to leave his country of his own free will.

Mistaking a refugee with a migrant or immigrant is ignorant and disrespectful of the people who find themselves in these situations.

Journalists, it’s your civil duty to get it right!

Unwilling Expat