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What is a Refugee? Asylum seeker? Undocumented? Illegal?

Immigration issues these days often hit the headlines. However, we have noticed that words like “refugee”, “asylum seeker”, and “migrant” are often used interchangeably. This might seem like a harmless misunderstanding, but using these terms incorrectly can lead to severe misinformation and misunderstandings. To help avoid this, we have created a ‘jargon buster’. To help clear up any confusion you may have about these terms.

Different countries have different variations of refugee law, but they all stem from the 1951 Refugee Convention and the 1967 Protocol which relates to refugee status.

The United States became a party to this protocol in 1968. In 1980, the US created the Refugee Act that’s still in operation today.


A refugee is any person forced to flee their country due to war, persecution, or because their home government cannot or will not protect them. They’re unable to - or are too afraid to - return home.

When a refugee flees, they’re registered with an official agency such as a government or the United Nations High Commission of Refugees (UNHCR). This allows them to gain access to state and international aid and assistance. To be registered as a refugee, several background checks, security and medical screenings must be performed to verify that they are fleeing war or persecution due to one of 5 reasons (1) nationality, (2) race, (3) religion, (4) political affiliation, or (5) membership of a particular social group (i.e. LGBTQ). This process takes 2-5 years on average.

Asylum Seeker

Asylum seekers are not officially designated refugees, but they have appealed to achieve refugee status. They’re in the process of leaving their country of origin in order to escape war or persecution due to one of 5 reasons (1) nationality, (2) race, (3) religion, (4) political affiliation, or (5) membership of a particular social group (i.e. LGBTQ). These are the same requirements for refugees.

An asylum seeker is a person who claims to be a refugee but whose claim has yet to be evaluated. They apply for asylum on the grounds they cannot return to their home due to fear of persecution. Yet at this stage, they’re unable to access the same rights a refugee can.

Migrants who want to apply for asylum in the United States have two legal ways to do so. They may approach a US port of entry and request asylum from Border Patrol. In this case, they will be put on a list and will be given an interview to see if they meet one of the 5 categories to qualify. If their reason for requesting asylum does not meet those requirements they will be turned away, if it does, they must be accepted and given a trial where the case will be investigated deeper.

The other legal option to request asylum in the United States is to cross the border into the United States without any documentation and then request asylum. This is often done by migrants crossing through the desert and Rio Grande and then present themselves to the Border Patrol and request asylum. Again, they must state their reason and if it fits one of the categories, they must be given a trial in immigration court and if it does not, they will be deported.


An immigrant is a person who willingly relocates to another country for permanent or long-term residency. Equally, their new country also legally recognizes them and has afforded the immigrant the right to live and work there.


A migrant shares many similarities with an immigrant, however where an immigrant seeks to permanently resettle, a migrant settles temporarily. In this way, an international student who plans to return home after their studies can be considered a migrant. Unlike an immigrant, a person could also be considered a migrant if they temporarily resettle in a different section of their home country.

Economic Migrant

An economic migrant is someone who seeks to resettle in a different country to either find work or for the better economic conditions in another country. As the economic migrant has not been forcibly displaced or fleeing violence and persecution, they have no special protections or legal status afforded to them as is the case with refugees. This is the case even if the economic migrant is trying to escape poverty.

Internally Displaced Person (IDP)

An in many was, an IDP is like a refugee. After all, much like a refugee, a person becomes an IDP when they flee violence or persecution, but where a refugee seeks sanctuary in another country, an IDP remains in their country of origin. In many cases, IDPs emerge in countries experiencing a civil war where civilians flee the fighting to areas that are relatively safer.

Colombia is one example of a country with high numbers of IDPs. Decades of violence between the Colombian military, the former guerrilla group the FARC, and other armed groups has resulted in the displacement of millions, many of whom still reside in Colombia.

In fact, Colombia is the country with the second-highest number of internally displaced people (as of December 2019, the number was roughly 5,576,000), second only to Syria.

Undocumented Immigrant / Illegal Alien

An undocumented immigrant sometimes misdefined as an “illegal immigrant” is a person who resides in a country where they do not have clear legal status or authorization to do so.

Due to their lack of legal status, they lack certain legal protections that citizens and immigrants have such as a right to vote but are able to legally get driver’s licenses in many states and an estimated 50-75% pay federal, state, and local taxes (according to the IRS). However, as they are not allowed to work legally in the US, many are often exploited and not paid for work performed.

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