What is the Difference Between a Refugee and an Immigrant?

There are many reasons why a person might leave their home country and seek to make a new life in a different one. The general public has a tendency to refer to these people by any of a number of different words, including “refugee,” “immigrant,” “migrant,” “and “asylum seeker.” However, there are crucial distinctions between the definitions of these terms, as well as the life experiences of the people who fall under each category. This article explains both.

What is an Immigrant? 

An immigrant is any person who moves his or her country of residence from one country to another, regardless of reason or legal status. The word is sometimes used interchangeably with “migrant,” though sometimes the term migrant is used to denote those who have to move from place to place for work. 


There is a distinction made between short-term or temporary immigration, that lasts somewhere between three months to a year, and long-term or permanent immigration, which lasts for a year or more, up to a lifetime.


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Why Do Immigrants Move to a New Country?

There is no one simple reason why immigrants immigrate, but it can be generalized that it is in order to seek a better life. They are not necessarily fleeing or escaping a direct threat of persecution or death, but believe that they will be able to improve their lives in their new country because of work opportunities, education, or family reasons. Other potential reasons to immigrate include healthcare, human rights, politics, or climate.


Immigrants do not generally have any outstanding reason or impediment preventing them from returning to their home countries. Therefore, countries have different laws for handling and processing immigrants than they do refugees.


Legal versus Illegal Immigration

Immigrants can have either legal or illegal immigrant status. Each country has its own processes for legal immigration and circumstances under which they allow a person to become a resident or citizen. In the United States, an immigrant must first get an immigrant visa and petition, or apply to immigrate. 


The government will then group applicants into categories based on a preference hierarchy related to the applicant’s reason for wanting to immigrate, what relationships they have with current US citizens, and whether they have an active job offer in the United States. There’s a limited number of immigrant visas granted on a yearly basis, so those with a higher-priority status are more likely to receive one. 


Because of the difficulty and complexity of the US immigration process, many people every year try to immigrate without going through it. These undocumented immigrants are subject to being deported from the United States back to their home country if they are discovered and must work illegally in order to avoid this.


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What is a Refugee?

In contrast to immigrants, refugee status is much more specific. In fact, it is defined under international law; the 1951 Refugee Convention defines who is a refugee and what rights they should be given by states. 


Refugees are fleeing their country of origin because of persecution, conflict, violence, or other dangerous circumstances. They must change their country of residence in order to secure personal safety, and would be put into danger if they returned to their home country. 


As a result, refugees require international protection and are, in fact, entitled to protection and assistance from the UN and other organizations. If it were not for giving them sanctuary in a new country, refugees would suffer significant, even deadly consequences.


According to the 1951 Convention, as well as other legal texts such as the OAU Refugee Convention, the protection of refugees has several aspects. One is that refugees should not be returned to situations in which their freedom and lives are threatened. Other rights that refugees are entitled to include fair and efficient asylum procedures, measures to ensure the protection of their basic rights, and the ability to live safely as well as help working toward a long-term solution. The responsibility for these rights and protections lies with the country where refugees are located, though the UN provides advice and support.


Refugees versus Asylum Seekers 

It’s worth noting that refugees and asylum seekers are similar, but different statuses. Asylum seekers are people who claim to be refugees, but whose claims are yet to be evaluated. As long as a refugee’s application is still pending, they are considered to be an asylum seeker. 


In order to receive refugee status, asylum seekers must go through the Refugee Status Determination (RSD), a process under which state governments and the UN determine whether or not the person in question can be legally defined as a refugee.


There is no single model for RSD, and it can be lengthy and complicated. Like with helping refugees, states are responsible for the RSD process, though the UN offers assistance. 


In the US in particular, asylum seekers must be approved by the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program (USRAP). They may generally bring a spouse with them, and sometimes other family members as well. After a year, refugees in the United States may apply for a green card and receive permanent residency. 


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The Lives of Refugees and Immigrants

Though the situations and lives of refugees and immigrants vary significantly within each group as they do between the groups, it is fair to say that the life experience of a refugee is quite different from that of an immigrant.


The website My Immigrant Story collects stories of immigrants that illustrate what the varied experiences of immigrants to the United States are like. A selected few are included below.


“I was born in Iran, and at the age of 10, my family and I absconded from the multi-systemic injustices and immigrated to the US in hopes of extended opportunities and freedom. I was about 3-years-old when the Iran-Iraq war started. My experiences as an immigrant child growing up in the US helped me gain an appreciation for the gift of life.”

Source: Bahareh, Chicago IL, myimmigrantstory.com


“In 1993, when my dad was 24 years old, my dad and his whole family received airplane tickets to America to escape the communist takeover in Vietnam. My dad and his family chose to settle in California because he heard the weather was nice and there was a lot of job opportunities in San Jose…. He went to West Valley College for two years to learn English.”

Source: Kelly, California, myimmigrantstory.com


“I came here in 2009 by myself from Iraq. I was 20 years old then. Now I’m 25 years old and pretty soon will become a citizen. I don’t have family support or any kind of support. It was tough at times but quiet seas don’t make good sailors. Life is going pretty well. I have a lot of experience in sales and customer service. I can work in any field I wish. I’m working full time and going to school part-time. I made a really good plan for my future. I believe that my future is set.”


In contrast, consider the story of Achan from South Sudan, living in Uganda as of 2017. As described by Global Goodness, “Achan is a widow who had eight children. Seven of her children died during the ongoing war in her home country of South Sudan. As a result, she was left with many orphans to take care of. Before the war, she was a peasant farmer in Sudan who cultivated to sustain her big family. When the war broke out in her community, she and her family ran to save their lives, leaving all their belongings behind. She believes her home has been destroyed by the rebels.”


24-year-old Fouzia from Kabul, Afghanistan, was a refugee in Tajikistan for 14 years before being able to return to Kabul. Telling her story, Fouzia explains, “During the factional war, my family and I left the country as it became unbearable to live in Kabul. Hundreds, or I think thousands, of rockets were hitting the city every day. We left for Tajikistan and came back when we heard there is peace in Afghanistan. We lived in Tajikistan for 14 years with the hope of going back home. Tajikistan was not our country.” 


Though the differences are clear, the similarities are perhaps even more striking. People don’t tend to leave their homes easily. Both refugees and immigrants seek a better life. Often times, both groups are escaping difficult situations. It is their hope for the future that helps them overcome the challenges they face. 


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