Migrants, refugees, and asylum seekers: have you ever wondered about the differences? 

These three terms are frequently confused or used interchangeably. While the terms ““migrants”, refugees”, and “asylum seekers” have much in common, they also carry important distinctions from each other.  With the ongoing global humanitarian crisis caused by Russia’s war on Ukraine, it’s more relevant than ever to know and understand the definitions and basic differences between migrants, refugees, and asylum seekers.

In this blog post, we’ll clarify the differences between these three terms.

Not Every Migrant Is a Refugee, nor Is Every Asylum Seeker (Already) a Refugee

Let’s first say that not every migrant is a refugee, as not every asylum seeker is already a refugee. Ok, so what’s the point? 

Throughout your life, you may face changes. For some, these changes include adapting to a new home. According to the Australian Red Cross, millions of people are forced to flee their homes seeking safety every year. But, conflicts, human rights violations, and persecution are not the only reasons why people leave their homes. There are also a ton of cases where people leave their homes to live abroad, seek new (job) opportunities, or for educational reasons.

Some people, as they move through their lives, rediscover home again and again. Some people never find another after once leaving home. And, of course, some people never leave the one home they’ve always known”

Verlyn Kinkenborg
'Celebrate our differences'

Image by Matteo Paganelli on Unsplash

The Differences Between an Asylum Seeker, a Refugee, and a Migrant

Not every asylum seeker becomes a refugee, but every refugee starts out as an asylum seeker. You might think: how is that possible? 

The situation is as follows: an asylum seeker is a person looking for protection because they fear persecution, or experience violence or human rights violations.

A person who asked for protection and was given refugee status is called a refugee. Refugees are either resettled in another country or waiting for resettlement. 

Lastly, a migrant is a person who leaves or flees their home, for either voluntary or involuntary reasons, to seek a better life and safer prospects. Migrants usually choose to live abroad due to economic factors.


Following the 1951 Convention relating to the status of refugees a refugee is any 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 or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country; or who, not having a nationality and being outside the country of his former habitual residence as a result of such events, is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to return to it.

Asylum Seekers

As described, an asylum seeker is someone who is seeking international protection but whose claim for refugee status has not yet been determined. Does this mean that asylum seekers are ‘illegals’? The answer is: no. Generally speaking, ‘illegal immigrants’ are people who enter a country without meeting the legal requirements for entry (for example, without a valid visa). 

However, everyone has the right to seek asylum, recording to article 14 of the Universal Declaration Of Human Rights. A person who has a well-founded fear of persecution should be viewed as a refugee and not be labeled an ‘illegal immigrant’ as the very nature of persecution means that their only means of escape may be via illegal entry and/or the use of false documentation, emphasizes the UNHCR.


There is no internationally accepted legal definition for migrant. Most organizations, like Amnesty International, understand migrants to be people staying outside their country of origin, who are not asylum-seekers or refugees. Reasons for a migrant to leave their country are to work, study, or live with their loved ones. But, people also migrate because of things like natural disasters, poverty, and political unrest. It’s also important to keep in mind that a lot of people don’t fit the legal definition of a refugee, but could also be in danger if they go home.

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You’re Not Alone

Don’t forget that even though the journeys of refugees, asylum seekers, and even migrants start with the hope of a better future, they can also be full of danger, fear, and uncertainty. It’s not uncommon that you feel alone or isolated once you move abroad. 

You might have lost your support network, your community, colleagues, and friends – that we mostly take for granted. Please don’t forget that you’re not alone in this! At SPEAK we’re here for you, to help you start building your social support network again.

Join SPEAK Events!

Did you move to a new place and want to connect with people, share your thoughts, and exchange experiences? Have a look at one of the events on our website. We organize offline and online cultural events every month. You are more than welcome to join!

Did you find this blog interesting? Then you might also want to read our other articles regarding refugees. Lastly, if you are a refugee from Ukraine in need of help, or if you’re someone who wants to help refugees from Ukraine, visit speakforukraine.org and get connected to the right opportunities!

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of SPEAK.

Author: Aster Taken

Aster is a marketing intern at SPEAK. She just finished her masters degree in Communication Science at the Radboud University Nijmegen and moved to Lisbon in January. She loves food, hanging out with friends and exploring her new temporary place of residence.

Author: Andressa Reis

Andressa Reis and is an intern at SPEAK in the marketing and communication department. She moved from Brazil, her home country, last year to study Languages, Literatures and Cultures at the University of Porto.

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