“I think I’ll just go get refugee status.” Nope, not that easy.

Since the Paris attacks, and even before, as this migrant situation has progressed, I have seen a distressing amount of posts conflating the unregulated flow of hard-to-track Syrian and Afghan asylum seekers turning up on the beaches of Greece and along the train tracks of Eastern Europe, with the 35,000 pre-approved Convention refugees that Barack Obama’s US and Justin Trudeau’s Canada have agreed to take (although not without concerns from local officials).

It’s time for a quick lesson in the vocabulary of migration.

A MIGRANT is anyone who moves from one country to another without intending to return to the country of departure in the short term. This term can encompass anyone from a teacher or scientist or bureaucrat who moves to another country to take a job. to a refugee or asylum seeker, to an unskilled job seeker seeking financial security, to a hippie Western backpacker who gets a one-way ticket and sets out to “find” himself or herself. Because it is such a catchall term and does not (or didn’t until this year) have any pejorative connotation, it is used by most mainstream media outlets to describe the Syrians and Afghans currently reaching Europe.

Most of the migrants showing up in Europe now are ASYLUM SEEKERS. Asylum seekers are people who move from one country to another because  of a fear of persecution in their country of origin based on race, religion, ethnicity or social or political affiliation, as defined by the United Nations’ 1951 Convention relating to the status of refugees. They often travel without legal documents and cross borders by irregular means, fearing persecution or refoulement— forcible removal to an unsafe area, which is illegal under the 1951 Convention.  Asylum seekers should not be considered “illegal” immigrants– migration in itself is legal, applying for it is a right under the Convention, and the actual definition of “illegal immigrant” (see below) is much narrower than that used in a lot of Western political discourse. With a few high-profile exceptions, an asylum seeker turns up unannounced. He or she files a  claim in the country of arrival– theoretically the first safe country in which he or she arrives, although this isn’t always the way it works in practice.  In practice, the country where an asylum seeker files a claim depends on how far he or she gets and, increasingly, the capacity of landing countries like Greece and Italy to handle claims.  In many countries, the claim process takes years, during which the asylum seeker is allowed to live in the country but rarely allowed to work and sometimes held in detention, although he or she has done nothing illegal. The claimant goes through security screenings and medical checks and eventually must go before a judge, for a status hearing. He or she must prove a “well-founded fear” of persecution based on race, religion, ethnic or national origin or political or social affiliation.  If the claim is rejected, in most countries the claimant can appeal twice. If the claim is approved, the claimant becomes an asylee, popularly called a  refugee, .and can live, work and eventually become a citizen of the country of arrival. If not, the claimant usually receives a deportation order and must leave, at the risk of becoming an illegal migrant. 

An ECONOMIC MIGRANT is a person who, with or without legal travel documents, moves from one country to another to work, to enjoy higher living standards or to flee extreme poverty. The term is often used as a pejorative term to describe asylum seekers who have no grounds for asylum under the 1951 Convention, but in most cases really means people who are migrating in search of a life that’s easier and more gratifying than  grinding, hand-to-mouth subsistence. The essence of economic migration can be captured in interviews with Haitian boat people in the 1990s– “Why are you leaving?” journalists would ask. “Mwen grangou,” pinched people on the rafts would reply, “I’m hungry.”  Some refugee advocates argue that extreme poverty should be added to the list of accepted grounds for a refugee claim, and having seen the reality of Burundian and Haitian poverty, I can see their point.

An ILLEGAL MIGRANT is someone who has received a deportation order and chosen to ignore it, or overstayed a visa without attempting to change his or her status. An asylum seeker with a pending claim is not an illegal immigrant.

A CLANDESTIN or UNDOCUMENTED MIGRANT is a migrant who stays in the country of arrival without making an asylum request or showing legal travel documents. Clandestins are present in Europe, North and South America and undoubtedly on every other continent. They are often homeless or couch-surfing, work under the table, do not exist fiscally and are almost impossible to count. Think of them as human beings who disappear into thin air. They are in a legal grey area if they have not been ordered to leave, but risk getting caught at any moment.

A CONVENTION REFUGEE is someone who has left his or her home country, usually because of a war, and settled in a camp run by the office of the  United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in a neighbouring country. There are Palestinians (in Lebanon) and Burundians (in Tanzania) who have lived in these camps since 1972. A relatively small number of people living in these camps (as few as 1 per cent) get nominated for resettlement within the framework of programs like those that the US and Canadian governments are proposing, or of small-group sponsorship programs where family members, friends, faith groups or nonprofits like Rainbow Refugee pay to bring a pre-approved individual into the country.  These nominees are interviewed first by UNHCR officials, receive background checks and medical checks, and are then interviewed again by US or Canadian visa officers in the country. Canadian visa officers, for example, cross-check the nominee’s story and verify that his or her name raises no red flags in the RCMP, CBSA or CSIS databases. Families, unaccompanied minors and the vulnerable are given priority. Depending on what province the nominees will be resettled in, they may go through additional scrutiny.  The preapproved convention refugees are resettled, given housing, the right to work and a few months’ living allowance until they find jobs.  People resettled in the US undergo similar procedures.

REFUGEE is an umbrella term for convention refugees and asylees. Both convention refugees and asylees meet the definition of persecution set out in the 1951 Convention and can stay permanently in their new country.

Refugee status can be lost if the person commits a certain type of crime or returns voluntarily to their home country within a specified time frame.

The main difference between asylum seekers in Europe and convention refugees in North America is that the former are screened only after arriving in the country. The latter, as we just saw, are screened heavily beforehand, which is the main reason the RCMP endorses the program. The common argument “We don’t know who these people are,” more a product of misinformation than racism, may be true for asylum seekers but is just not the case for the convention refugees.


About msmarguerite

Young Quebec City-based freelance journalist. once and future nomad. I blog about life, about travel, about things I notice and every so often about work. I enjoy language learning, singing, swing dancing, skating and...other stuff, sometimes. My heart is somewhere in East Africa, Haiti or Eastern Europe. English, français, русский, malo slovensko, un poco de espanol, um pouco de português ndiga ikirundi, mwen ap aprann kreyòl...
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