Guide to Key Migration Terms

There are many reasons why people make the difficult decision to leave their homes. Some are fleeing persecution while others are searching for better economic opportunities.

Are you thinking of migrating or have you already emigrated? If so, understanding key migration terms can help you understand your rights and make better informed decisions.


According to the International Organization for Migration (IOM), a migrant is “any person who is moving or has moved across an international border or within a State away from his/her habitual place of residence”. A person who fits this description is considered a migrant regardless of their legal status and whether they have chosen freely to migrate or not. The cause of their movement is also irrelevant.

An irregular migrant is a person who has entered a country without the correct travel documents or a valid visa. To avoid being arrested and returned to their country of origin, an irregular migrant usually enters the country without passing through the obligatory border checks.

On the other hand, a legal migrant is someone who has entered a country with all the valid travel documents, including a visa and other relevant permits (for work, residency, studies, etc.). When a migrant presents these documents at the border checks and is permitted entry by border management officials, they are a legal migrant.

An asylum seeker is a person who has fled their own country due to persecution or serious harm and is applying for international protection and refugee status in another country.

Asylum seekers are protected by the 1951 UN Refugee Convention. The Convention states that even if they arrive in a country irregularly, an asylum seeker must be given access to fair and efficient asylum procedures and measures so that they can live safely while their claims are processed.

If an asylum seeker’s application is rejected, they will have to leave the country, as will any irregular immigrant who is not granted permission to stay on other grounds.

Refugees are people fleeing armed conflicts or persecution. An asylum seeker becomes a refugee if their application for asylum is accepted. A refugee is allowed to stay for a certain amount of time in the country that granted them asylum, because they have proven that they would be under threat of persecution or serious harm in their own country due to their race, religion, nationality, membership of a social group or political opinions. Refugees have a right to international protection.

While asylum seekers and refugees have fled their country due to persecution, economic migrants have left in order to improve their economic prospects. Economic migrants travel voluntarily to another country to improve their quality of life. If they travel to another country irregularly, economic migrants may be arrested and sent home. Economic migrants are not eligible for asylum under the 1951 UN Refugee Convention.

An internally displaced person (IDP) is an individual who has been forced to flee their home area to another area within the internationally recognised borders of their country. Usually, internal displacement results from an armed conflict, human rights violations or a disaster (natural or human-made).

The terms unaccompanied minors, child migrants, child immigrants, unaccompanied migrant children and juvenile immigrants are often used interchangeably and generally refer to immigrants who are under the age of 18 and are not under the care of a parent or legal guardian. The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child defines a child as a “human being below the age of 18.”

Border management refers to all policies, laws and other public measures facilitating or limiting authorised immigration (business, work, studies, family reunification, asylum, etc.) and other movements of people (tourism, family visits, short-term work and business visits, etc.) into a country. Border management officials aim to detect and prevent irregular entries into the country.

Human trafficking is when a person is moved illegally within a country or across borders for exploitation purposes. A person is considered a victim of human trafficking if they have been threatened, coerced, abducted, defrauded, deceived, abused or promised payment and benefits by their trafficker.

Smuggling refers exclusively to the action of helping people to move illegally across borders and does not necessarily entail abuse, coercion or exploitation. Smugglers, the people whose business is to facilitate irregular border crossings, are criminals.

Someone’s country of origin is the state where they usually live, whether they are a national or a resident of this country.

Transit countries are those that migrants pass through while on their journey to their destination country. They may stay in a transit country for days, months or years, sometimes never reaching their expected destination.

A destination country is where migrants intend to end their journey and settle. Many migrants never reach their destination countries, settling in a transit country or returning to their country of origin instead.

A returnee is someone who has returned to their country of origin after emigrating. Return may be voluntary or forced.

A voluntary return is the return of a migrant to their country of origin or another country based on the free will of the returnee. Voluntary return can be assisted or independent. Assisted voluntary return involves administrative, logistical, financial and reintegration support for migrants who volunteer to return home.

A forced return is the compulsory return of a person to their country of origin or to a third country. A forced return is the consequence of an administrative or judicial act. Deportation and removals are forms of forced return.

Repatriation is the personal right of a refugee, prisoner of war or a civil detainee to return to their country of nationality under certain circumstances. It also covers the return of migrants and international officials in times of international crisis.

Resettlement means the relocation and integration of a migrant into another area, usually in a third country, in order to protect them from direct threats and persecution. The country where they resettle usually grants them long-term resident rights.

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