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Last Updated: Monday, 5 April, 2004, 13:11 GMT 14:11 UK
Refugees and migrants: Defining the difference
By Ruud Lubbers
UN High Commissioner for Refugees

Ruud Lubbers
Lubbers: 'International law is under pressure'
The practice of granting asylum to people fleeing persecution in foreign lands is one of the earliest hallmarks of civilisation.

References to it have been found in texts written 3,500 years ago, during the blossoming of the great early civilisations in the Middle East.

The Hittites, Babylonians, Assyrians and ancient Egyptians all recognised the need to protect refugees.

Migrations of people for non-refugee reasons have also been taking place since before the beginning of recorded time.

If we trace our ancestors back far enough, all of us would find that we originated somewhere else.

Preserving freedoms

Migration has often been, and is likely to continue to be, an important catalyst of advancement.

Refugees fleeing war or persecution are in the most vulnerable situation imaginable

But refugees and migrants are fundamentally different, and for that reason are treated very differently under modern international law.

Migrants, especially economic migrants, choose to move in order to improve the future prospects of themselves and their families. Refugees have to move if they are to save their lives or preserve their freedom.

It is this difference in motivation that led to their different status in law.

Refugees fleeing war or persecution are in the most vulnerable situation imaginable.

They have no protection from their own state - indeed it is usually their own state that is threatening to persecute them.

If other states do not let them in, and do not help them once they are in, then - to put it starkly - they may be condemning them to death, or an intolerable life in the shadows, without sustenance and without rights.

Mistrust and hatred

Even people forced from their homes by floods, earthquakes and other natural disasters are not in the same position.

Their government is sympathetic towards them. It is not driving them away, and they still have rights.

Border controls are constantly being strengthened and made stricter - the aim is to keep out illegal immigrants
They are not refugees. There is no such thing as an "environmental refugee" or an "economic refugee".

Why do I dwell on these distinctions?

Because these two distinct groups of people on the move - refugees and migrants - are increasingly being confused, and increasingly being treated in the same way: with mistrust, even hatred and outright rejection.

The impressive body of international law designed to protect refugees is under intense pressure.

Border controls are constantly being strengthened and made stricter. The aim is to keep out illegal immigrants.

Fine. Countries are perfectly entitled to decide how many migrants they wish to accept.

And we all agree on the need to prevent terrorism - whether foreign or domestic. Border controls are necessary and so are limits on immigration.


But we must guard against indiscriminate rejection of foreigners. Refugees are already finding it increasingly difficult to access safety.

There is a third term which has perhaps suffered from even greater confusion, and that is "asylum seeker". This term has even become a form of abuse in some countries.

The door is wide open to exploitation by people who know they are not refugees
At the end of the day, some asylum seekers turn out to be refugees, and some turn out not to be.

National asylum systems are there to decide which among them need international protection. Those judged not to be refugees can - and probably should - be sent back to their home countries.

The efficiency of the asylum system is key. If it takes two, three, even five, years to judge an asylum claim, the door is wide open to exploitation by people who know they are not refugees.


If the system is fast, fair and efficient, then there is a strong disincentive for non-refugees to enter it in the first place.

Most people smugglers do not distinguish between refugees and migrants either - they'll simply smuggle anyone who can pay. That has been part of the problem in recent years.

The sheer numbers helped increase the backlogs and thereby nourish the smuggling business
In Europe, where the asylum and immigration debates have grown particularly heated, intertwined and confused, a major driving force was the high numbers of asylum seekers who arrived during the 1990s.

This was caused primarily by the series of wars in the Balkans, and later by the long-festering situations in Afghanistan and Iraq.

The sheer numbers helped increase the backlogs, slow down the system, and thereby nourish the smuggling business.

The international refugee system, which came into its own after World War II, has saved countless lives because it obliged states to make an exception when it comes to refugees.

Today, the numbers of asylum claims in Europe have fallen to under half what they were in the early 1990s, and the number of refugees elsewhere in the world is also going down.

Global management

This means we are now are in a position to concentrate on the quality of our asylum systems in industrialised countries and on improving conditions in refugees' regions of origin so that those who go home are able to stay there, and fewer are forced to flee in the first place.

We have to be clear about who is a refugee and who is a migrant, and not sacrifice one to keep out the other
It is time for a shift away from a largely negative approach - closed borders, detention, interception at sea, cuts in benefits - to one which focuses on continuing the ancient tradition of welcoming refugees.

While also taking into account the interests of states and their populations in a fast-moving, interlinked modern world.

We definitely need better global management of asylum. And my agency, UNHCR, has made a number of ambitious suggestions about how we can achieve that.

We also need better management of other forms of migration. But to start with, we have to be clear about who is a refugee and who is a migrant, and not sacrifice one to keep out the other.

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