What is the difference between a migrant or refugee label?

In the first half of 2015, around 137,000 people traveled across the Mediterranean Sea to seek refuge in Europe, according to the United Nations Refugee Agency. Traveling through terrible conditions aboard unsafe boats and dinghies, approximately 800 people died last April in the largest refugee shipwreck on record. The majority are fleeing from war or persecution at home, yet there is a crucial legal difference in the distinction between being labeled a migrant or a refugee.

Daniel Wordsworth, the president and CEO of the American Refugee Committee, writes to MPR,

The distinction between being labeled a migrant versus a refugee is simple – refugees are protected by international law and as such are afforded certain rights. And so, this label can mean everything. It can mean the difference between life and death, between crossing a border or being turned back home. It’s the difference between having enough food to feed your family or not, the difference between the hope for a bright future or a tragic one. That’s why knowing the distinction – and using labels appropriately – is so incredibly important. Especially in light of the crisis in Europe.

In the aftermath of World War II, millions of Europeans were without a home and desperately seeking refuge far from their home countries. The 1951 UN Refugee Convention was convened in response to that emergency. It defines the rights of refugees and determines who does and does not fall under refugee status. According to the convention, a refugee is someone fleeing their country due to war, persecution, or natural disaster. Refugees have, by law, certain rights. States cannot refuse them or return them home. They are allowed freedom of movement. When an individual is granted refugee asylum, their family will receive protection as well. A migrant, on the other hand, is the umbrella term for everyone else who is seeking a better life elsewhere. They can be deported, refused protection, refused services.

The millions of people who have fled Syria since the civil war began in 2011 are refugees, recognized by international law. And, over 50 percent of people who have fled into Europe in recent months are Syrian refugees. Many also hail from places like Afghanistan and Iraq, countries ravaged by war and under constant threat of bombings and instability. Many of these people are legally refugees. They should be recognized as such and afforded the same rights as refugees all over the world.

Blurring the distinction between a migrant and a refugee is dangerous. By not recognizing the legal human rights of refugees or thinking critically about our words, we risk minimizing the grave conditions in which Syrians have been forced to live for the last four years. And, by ignoring that distinction, we are risking their lives.