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The Modern Problem of Conflating Terminologies between Refugees and Migrants

by David K. Tian  Spring 2019

In light of the ongoing refugee crisis in the Mediterranean, where estimates indicate that hundreds of thousands of people have tried to cross from Africa and the Middle East into Europe, a debate on the usefulness of the term “refugee” versus “economic refugee,” “migrant,” or “forced migrant” has surfaced with new immediacy. Do these terms still have conceptual and policy relevance? How do international and regional migration institutions interact with these fluid categories? And what are the consequences for the long-term politics of migration, asylum, immigration, and assimilation? This essay asserts that the distinction among these terms is as important as ever, and provides theoretical and empirical examples to demonstrate the consequences of confounding them.  

1 Collier and Levitsky (1997),

p. 430.

3 Prytz (2016), p. 47.

6 Pai and Benton (2013).

8 T.H. Marshall (1977).

9 Helmke and Levitsky (2004), p. 72.

10 Helmke and Levitsky (2004), p. 727.

14 Bloemraad (2006a).

15 The Economist (2018).

21  Ibid.

            The recent waves of asylum seekers from the Middle East and Africa into Europe put a spotlight on refugee and migration policy across Europe and across the globe, illustrating inconsistencies in the academic literature and across various policies in applications of the terms “refugee” and “migrant.” Designating certain categories of people as “refugee” or “forced migrant” has consequences not only for the literature of political science, but also influence over real-world policy. This essay argues that it is important to keep these terms consistent within the literature, but also that various institutions, both regional and international, interact with these fluid terms in crucial, but delicate ways. Thus, a misunderstanding of the term “refugee” has serious consequences not only within scholarly circles, but also in the policy realm and can influence people’s livelihoods and determine life-and-death outcomes. Open and welcoming policies toward refugees and migrants allow countries to gain social and economic advantages that countries with more restrictive policies will enjoy. To demonstrate these assertions empirically, this essay will compare the current immigration policies of Canada under the Trudeau administration with the current policies of the United States under the Trump administration and explore their effects. Following that, the essay will assess the recent waves of asylum seekers in Europe and their interactions with the policies of various countries, as well as with the Dublin Regulation. Lastly, it will also use China’s policies toward North Korean defectors as an empirical example of why consistent usage of terms is important.

            Within scholarly and foreign policy debates, it is important to keep definitions of major concepts consistent. Collier and Levitsky1 indicate that many scholars in political science “are concerned with conceptual validity”. Within the interdisciplinary realms of refugee and migration studies, the designations of “refugee” versus “migrant,” along with their effects on political economy, have received a great deal of attention in many fields, including political science, sociology, and English linguistics2. For the purposes of this paper, the term “migrant” will be understood to mean “someone who chooses to move in order to find work or a better life”3 and the term “refugee” will be understood as someone who “is forced to move because of threat to life or freedom”4. Specifically, the United Nations considers anyone a refugee if the following conditions are met: “A refugee... is someone who is unable or unwilling to return to their country of origin owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion”5[1]. Hence, a refugee is afforded protection under international law, whereas migrants are left to individual countries to decide what policies work best.

            Within the two overarching categories of “migrant” and “refugee,” there are also sub-categories, each with their own unique set of policy challenges and considerations. While migration refers to the overall movement of people from place to place, including internal migration, such as the rural-to-urban migrants of China6, forced migration is the overall movement of people in which an element of coercion exists, including both natural and human-made[2] causes7. Forced migration is broader than, but ultimately includes, refugees. Hence, the term “refugee” can be replaced by “forced migrant,” but a “forced migrant” may not necessarily be a refugee. Accordingly, an individual like Eunsun Kim[3] would be accurately described as both a forced migrant and refugee, whereas someone who is evicted from his or her home, because of neighborhood development projects, would potentially be considered a forced migrant, but is unlikely to qualify as a refugee. Failure to distinguish these concepts would be highly problematic because refugees are entitled to certain legal protections while a forced migrant might not necessarily have the same recourse.

            Refugees are afforded certain rights and protections from international accords. In principle, those rights and protections must be given to a refugee who is granted asylum, although, in practice, that may not always be the case. The British sociologist T.H. Marshall, in his classic essay “Class, Citizenship and Social Development”8, argues that citizenship rights, at least as they unfolded in England, consist of three elements: civil rights, political rights, and social rights, in that order. He defined civil rights as individual liberties (e.g. freedom of expression and movement); political rights (e.g. the right to vote); and social rights that entail receiving benefits (e.g. welfare and education). In order for a refugee to fully assimilate into a recipient country, he or she must be afforded all three dimensions of citizenship rights.

            Certain institutions within a society, both formal and informal, can interact with these fluid terms and their interactions have serious consequences. Formal political institutions include those that are codified and enforced through official means, (e.g. courts of law, property rights, and law enforcement). Helmke and Levitsky define formal institutions as “rules and procedures that are created, communicated, and enforced through channels widely accepted as official”9. For example, the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency, in the United States, is a formal institution that has the authority to arrest and deport undocumented migrants who come to the country through facilitated migration.[4]

            Previous studies have found that formal institutions must exceed informal institutions in strength, otherwise, they risk failing to informal ones.[5] Informal institutions are what Levitsky and Helmke define as, “socially shared rules, usually unwritten, that are created, communicated, and enforced outside of officially sanctioned channels”10. For example, labor trafficking in Thailand’s fishing industry demonstrates the consequences of when formal and informal institutions are against each other. Although asylum seekers in Thailand should legally be granted the rights and privileges afforded to people seeking asylum, two widespread informal institutions in Thailand, profiteering and retribution, are more stringently enforced than the formal ones, and as a result, incentivize corrupt police officers and other members of society to disobey formal institutions such as the rule of law or criminal courts. In states with stronger capacities, such as the U.S. and Canada, formal institutions are generally stronger than informal ones. Therefore, these societies should, in principle, respect refugee status and give asylum seekers due process while also ensuring that economic migrants enter the country through legal means.

            The amalgam of the interactions between terms like “refugee” and “migrant” and the various institutions that employ them have serious consequences on immigrant integration and assimilation11. conceptualizes immigrant integration as “immigrants...interacting with, being a part of, having a sense of belonging to, being happy with, and having a trust for local institutions”. It is clear from this conceptualization that the strength of various institutions has a significant impact on the level of integration of various migrants. Countless headlines abound regarding undocumented workers who reported crimes to, in turn, be arrested by ICE12. Research from Policy Link confirms that Latino communities in the United States highly distrust police13.

            Canada and the United States, though culturally similar, diverge in immigration policy. Bloemraad analyzes this contrast in her 2006 article “Becoming a Citizen in the United States and Canada: Structured Mobilization and Immigrant Political Incorporation” and book, Becoming a Citizen. Bloemraad14 observes that citizenship rates of the foreign-born populations of Canada and the United States were comparable in the mid-1900s. However, by the beginning of the 21st century, the share of naturalized foreign-born residents in the United States declined, precipitously, while in Canada the rate remained approximately the same.

            The contrast between the United States’ and Canada’s political and economic consequences are significant. These wealthy North American countries have comparable GDPs per capita, but, owing to its significantly higher population, the overall national GDP of the United States is currently the highest in the world. The recent hawkish immigration policies of the Trump administration in the United States, however, are placing the American advantage at risk. For example, many tech workers in Silicon Valley, who entered on H1-B visas, are now migrating to Canada, where tech vacancies are expected to reach 200,000 by next year15. Instead of waiting 20 years for the possibility of receiving a green card in the United States, Canada is attracting foreign talent with its friendlier immigration policies, including a quicker path to permanent residency. This phenomenon has the potential to degrade American economic and technological prowess while enhancing Canada’s economy.

            American and Canadian policy also diverge in relation to refugee policy. Whereas the United States is shirking its responsibility to accommodate more refugees16 during a period of unprecedented global displacement of vulnerable persons, the Canadian government fails to satisfy the domestic desire to accommodate and sponsor even more refugees17. To paraphrase Yogi Berra, predictions about refugee policy are difficult to make, especially about the future. However, if the United States continues its hawkish policies, would-be immigrants are likely going to seek opportunity elsewhere, representing a colossal loss of foreign talent for the United States. Hence, it is not a stretch of the imagination to say the long-term consequences of such nativist policies in the United States will likely result in a loss of American prestige, economic clout, and global legitimacy.

            The issues of immigration and asylum are not just American or Canadian concerns, but global ones. Most notably, Europe is currently experiencing a migrant crisis, with inconsistent interpretations of policies across the continent in terms of who does and does not qualify as a refugee. Europe has made great efforts to prevent people from seeking asylum within its territories18. As per the Dublin Regulation, asylum seekers must apply for asylum in whatever country they first arrive. Because of its proximity to Northern Africa, many would-be refugees arrive in Italy and are legally forced to seek asylum there. Asylum seekers in Italy face confinement to migrant reception centers which are prone to numerous problems, including mafia influence over their administrations, abuse, and mismanagement19. Italy granted the third-largest number of positive asylum decisions, in 201720, and expelled many asylum seekers prior to undergoing the application process. Italy’s relatively high number of positive asylum decisions is likely due to its geographic location. Conversely, Germany granted 60% of all positive asylum decisions, in 201721,  despite its centralized location. Had it not been for the Dublin Regulation, there would have been more asylum seekers who would opt for the application process in Germany, rather than Italy, because individuals whom Italy considers economic migrants may have been considered legitimate refugees by Germany.

            Another region where these issues are of crucial importance is in Northeast Asia, along the border between China and North Korea. The issue of asylum is a matter of life or death for those who defect from North Korea.  China does not recognize defectors from North Korea as legitimate refugees nor does it grant them refugee status. Instead, the Chinese government considers defectors economic migrants who leave the country in search of food or economic opportunities22. The government of North Korea considers it an act of treason to leave the country without prior authorization.  Yet, the “key driver for the outflow of North Koreans” is due to hunger, poverty, or the lack of adequate food.  Treason is a political offense, under the North Korean penal code, punishable by death23. Regardless of the reason for defection, the moment a North Korean steps foot across the border, he or she has committed an act of treason and consequently has a “well-founded fear of being persecuted.”

            By focusing upon the original reason for defection and labeling North Korean defectors as economic migrants, the Chinese government alleviates itself of its responsibility to uphold its obligations to the 1951 CPRSR, to which it is a signatory. China is knowingly condemning refugees by sending North Korean defectors back across the border.  This example demonstrates the importance of differentiating between migrants and refugees and the consequences this differentiation poses. 

            Terms including “refugee” and “migrant” are essential to current literature and policy.  Collier and Levitsky are correct in saying that “political scientists are concerned with conceptual validity”24. The comparison of Canada and the United States’ divergent paths demonstrates the impact of various institutions and policies on migration and the long-term effects on political and economic outcomes. The North Korea-China example serves as a strong illustration of why it is important to define these terms. Many do not wish to see their fellow people persecuted and killed for reasons such as defecting a country. It makes sense to differentiate and consistently apply these various terms, in context. Arend Lijphart25 argues that consociational democracies are “kinder” and “gentler” than majoritarian ones. Perhaps he should also consider that those countries which properly substantiate and apply the various concepts and terms used in immigration studies would also be well-regarded in the international community as “kinder”, “gentler” and those which respect humanitarian and human rights issues.

                                                                                     END NOTES


[1] For the rest of this essay, anytime the Convention and Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees is referenced, it will be referred to as the CPRSR.

[2] The website uses the term “man-made causes.” However, I believe that in the year 2019, members of society must be more cognizant of gender bias in their use of language. Accordingly, I replaced “man-made causes” with “human-made causes.”

[3] Eunsun Kim escaped from North Korea with her mother and sister and currently lives in South Korea. To do so, she had to first enter China, where, as a result of China’s policies, she lived in hiding for nine years, before successfully applying for asylum at the South Korea embassy in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia. In order to protect her identity, she uses Eunsun Kim as a pseudonym, and this paper will do so as well as to not reveal her real name.

[4] This essay takes a positive approach, rather than a normative one, to the study of migration, broadly defined. Whether the author of this essay personally agrees with ICE’s methods or thinks that they are moral ways to deal with sentient human beings are normative issues, and are beyond the scope of the topic at hand. Hence, I am analyzing the situation as it is, rather than what I personally believe it should be.

[5] See Tian, David K. (2018). “Labor Trafficking in Thailand’s Fishing Industry: Opposition between Formal and Informal Institutions Leads to Distorted Incentives for Each Other.” Journal of Applied Economics and Business 20(4): 29-36


  1. Bloemraad, I. (2006). “Becoming a Citizen in the United States and Canada: Structured Mobilization and Immigrant                      Political Incorporation.”. Social Forces, 85(2): pp.667-695.

    2. Bloemraad, I. (2006). “Becoming a Citizen: Incorporating Immigrants and Refugees in the United States and Canada.”.

                      Berkeley, California: University of California Press.

   3. Cha, V. (2015). The Impossible State: North Korea, Past and Future. New York: NY: HarperCollins Publishers.

   4. Collier, D. and Levitsky, S. (1997). “Democracy with Adjectives: Conceptual Innovation in Comparative Research.”. World                          Politics, 49(3): pp.430-451.

   5. Cornell Center (2014). “Treason,” Death Penalty Database, Cornell Center on the Death Penalty Worldwide. Available at:


   6. Eunsun, K. and Falletti, S. (2015). A Thousand Miles to Freedom: My Escape from North Korea. New York, NY: St.

                       Martin’s Press.

    7. Faizer, M. (2017). “America First: Improving a Recalcitrant Immigration and Refugee Policy.”. Tennessee Law Review,

                      84(4): pp.933-969.

    8. Gostoli, Y. (2018). “Italy: Migrants protest expulsion from refugee centres in Naples.”. Available at:



    9. Harris, K. (2016). “'Extraordinary initiative': Canada's private refugee sponsorship system exported as a model for the

                    world.”. Available at:

     10. International Organization of Migration (n.d.). “Key Migration Terms.". Available at:                                            


     11. Lijphart, A. (1999). Patterns of Democracy. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

    12. Mohdin, A. (2018). “A single country granted 60% of positive asylum decisions in the EU.”.      Available at:


    13. Pai, H. and Benton, G. (2013). Scattered Sand: The Story of China's Rural Migrants. New York,NY: Verso.

   14. Prytz, Y. (2016). “Refugee or migrant? What corpora can tell.”. Nordic Journal of English Studies,15(2): pp.47-61.

   15. The Economist (2018). “Indian technology talent is flocking to Canada.”.

   16. Theodore, N. (2013). “Insecure Communities: Latino Perceptions of Police Involvement in Immigration Enforcement.”.

                    Available at:

   17. Thielemann, E. and Hobolth, M. (2016). “Trading numbers vs. rights? Accounting for liberal and restrictive dynamics in the

                   evolution of asylum and refugee policies.”. Journal of Ethnic & Migration Studies, 42(4): pp.643-664.

   18. Thomas, M. (1977). “Class, Citizenship and Social Development.”. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

   19. Tian, D. (2017). “Scarlet Fever in North Korea: Public Health as a Motivating Factor for China to        Repatriate

                  Defectors.”. Yonsei Journal of International Studies., 9(2): pp.276-287.

    20. Tian, D. (2018). “Labor Trafficking in Thailand’s Fishing Industry: Opposition between Formal and Informal Institutions

                  Leads to Distorted Incentives for Each Other.”. Journal of Applied Economics and Business, 20(4): pp.29-36.

     21. Tian, D. (2018). Tian, David K. “Labor Trafficking in Thailand’s Fishing Industry: Opposition between Formal and

                  Informal Institutions Leads to Distorted Incentives for Each Other.”. Journal of Applied Economics and Business, (20(4),


     22. Trilling, D. (2018). “Five Myths about the Refugee Crisis.”. The Guardian.

     23. United Nations (1951). “Convention and Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees.”. Available at:


    24. Weng, S. (2019). “Asian Immigrant Integration in the Southern Region of the United States.”.Society, pp.55(1): pp.67-73.


2 Prytz, (2016) and Thielemann and Hobolth, (2016).

4 Ibid.

5 Convention and Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees (1951).

7 International Organization of Migration.

11Weng (2019), p. 71.

12 Schmidt et al. (2018).

13 Theodore (2013).

16 Faizer (2017).

17 Harris, (2016).

18 Trilling (2018).

19 Gostoli (2018).

20 Mohdin (2018).

22 Tian (2017).

23 Cornell Center on the Death Penalty Worldwide.

24 Collier and Levitsky (1997), p. 430.

[25] Lijphart (1999).

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