What Do the Words “Economic Migrant,” “Foreigner,” and “Refugee” Really Mean?

Published: Nov 4, 2022 Reading time: 9 minutes
What Do the Words “Economic Migrant,” “Foreigner,” and “Refugee” Really Mean?
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Not everyone who publicly speaks on the topic of migration uses the correct terminology. As a result of this, we often encounter phrases that either make no sense and/or are misleading, such as “illegal migrant” or “economic refugee.” For this reason, it is our hope that our glossary of migration terminology will help you navigate the plethora of words and phrases connected to the topic of migration. You will see, for example, that not every migrant is a refugee and not every foreigner is a migrant. We will show you that humans cannot be illegal, so it’s misleading to use the term “illegal migrant.” 

In the following diagram, you can see the clear distinction between migrants and foreigners on one side, and refugees on the other. These words should never be confused, and we will explain why below. 

Voluntary Migration – Migrants vs. Foreigners

Are the words “migrant” and “foreigner” synonymous?

In a word, no. A "foreigner" (legally termed “alien”) is a citizen of a country different than the one in which they currently find themselves. It’s a term defined by the Czech legal system. The term "migrant,” on the other hand, does not have an internationally unified legal definition, the one most often used was penned by the United Nations and denotes a person who crosses an internationally recognized border and remains abroad for over a year.

But what about a child born in the Czech Republic? Is the child a foreigner? Yes, if their parents, and by extension, the child, do not have Czech citizenship, they are foreigners. Are there migrants who are not foreigners? Yes, those are the people who came to the Czech Republic and received Czech citizenship.

The Czech legal system further distinguishes between foreigners from so-called “third countries” (i.e., countries outside the EU or the European Free Trade Association such as Iceland, Norway, or Switzerland), and foreigners within the EU or the European Free Trade Association (EFTA).

Why is the idea of having a choice important?

As previously indicated, the term migrant refers to the migration history of a person, i.e. that they were born in another country, or lived there for a long time and then moved. The idea of having a choice is an important aspect of this definition, as that is what really distinguishes a "migrant" from a "refugee". That said, it is important to understand that the most common reason for migration is poor living conditions, which can be the result of poor governmental administration, a natural disaster, or climate change. Despite this, these factors are not considered when granting asylum or deciding whether or not someone is a refugee. A "refugee", unlike a migrant, crosses the border and seeks safety abroad because the situation in their homeland is life-threatening or otherwise unbearable.

Does it make sense to talk about “economic migrants”?

To be frank, adding the word “economic” to “migrant” is redundant. When people do put these words together, though, they are most likely trying to emphasise the fact that one of the most common reasons for migration is to improve one’s economic standing.

Do all foreigners form a sort of "national minority"?

The term "national minority" cannot be used as a synonym to describe any foreign group of people. A national minority is a legal term defined by Act No. 273/2001 Coll., about the rights of the members of national minorities, which narrows down specific ethnic groups that were recognized as historical national minorities in the Czech Republic. One of the conditions is Czech citizenship, which means any member of a minority must be a Czech citizen in order to be recognized.

Forced Migration – Refugees, International Protection and Asylum

The definition of a “refugee”

International law (specifically, the Refugee Convention of 1951 which was later expanded on by the 1967 Protocol) defines a “refugee” as follows: a person who, owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of their nationality and are unable or, owing to such fear, unwilling to avail themselves of the protection of that country.

Under the term “refugee” we usually think of someone who flees from their country of origin for fear of their life. The key idea here is that it’s involuntary. Returning home could mean a direct life threat for them.

Why saying “illegal refugee” or “economic refugee” makes no sense!

The above definition implies that a person becomes a refugee as soon as they meet at least one of the criteria laid down by the Convention. In fact, their right to asylum is not related to how they entered the country, but whether they are authorised to stay. In other words, even someone who enters the country without valid authorization has the right to seek asylum. Economic refugee is another illogical phrase since poverty, poor living conditions or economic situation are not criteria for the definition of a refugee.

Other Words Relating to Refugees: What Do They All Mean?

Internally Displaced Person (IDP)

If people flee for fear of life and seek help only within their country of origin, they are called an “internally displaced person (IDP).” According to the UN Refugee Agency, there were over 41 million IDPs around the world in 2019.

International Protection Applicant

An international protection applicant is someone who claims refugee status and seeks international protection from persecution or serious threat to their life in their country of origin. Every refugee starts off as an applicant, but not everyone will eventually be recognized. Another common term for this is “asylum seeker.”

International Protection

A foreigner who believes they meet at least one of the criteria to be recognized as a refugee can seek international protection. In the Czech Republic, this protection can take three forms: asylum, humanitarian asylum, or subsidiary protection. All of these are defined by Act No. 325/1999 Coll., the Asylum Act. While their application is being examined, the applicant is termed an “international protection applicant” and if they are successful, they receive the status of a “recognized refugee” or a “person with subsidiary protection.”

  • Asylum: According to the Asylum Act, asylum will be granted if, in the course of administrative proceedings for granting international protection, it is determined that “the applicant a) has experienced persecution for exercising political rights and freedoms, or b) has a justifiable fear of such persecution for reasons of race, sex, religion, nationality, association with a social group or supporting certain political opinions in the country of which they are a citizen, or, in the case of a stateless person, the country of their last permanent residence.”
  • Humanitarian asylum: This can be granted if the applicant fails to meet the asylum criteria for reasons of persecution or for the purpose of family reunification, but still has serious reasons why they cannot return to their country of origin.
  • Subsidiary protection: This is a lower form of international protection, usually granted for a limited time period, after which the reasons for its granting are reviewed. While granting asylum is always handled on a per-person basis, subsidiary protection doesn’t always have to be aimed at an individual applicant and can be granted on the basis of a general threat in the country of origin, such as an armed conflict.

The issue of the term “illegal migrant”

In the media, as well as in public discourse, you can come across the term, illegal migrant. This term is meant to describe someone who stays in a country they are not a citizen of without proper authorization. But is the person themselves illegal or just their actions?

The Associated Press (AP), announced in 2013 that they would stop using the phrase illegal immigrant in their publications and they were soon joined by other American media agencies. One year later the term “illegal migrant” was dropped by the European Council too. One of the major advocates of this terminological revolution was The Platform for International Cooperation on Undocumented Migrants (PICUM), which unites over 140 non-profit organizations, universities, and experts from over 30 countries worldwide, including the Czech Republic. 

In its Words Matter campaign, PICUM pointed out the findings of several sociological studies which indicated that the phrase “illegal migrant” carries a strong negative connotation of something unlawful, implying that migration is a fundamentally illegal activity. Such a label leads to the stigmatization of unauthorized residents because words, even those that do not describe migrants, really do matter. Mere words can conjure up whole images in our heads – images that we project onto reality. If we speak about migrants as something illegal, especially using natural disaster metaphors like “tides” or “uncontrollable waves,” we just perpetuate the idea that migration is a danger to our security.

But how should we talk about migrants who've broken migration laws?

"Foreigner without a residence permit" is a sentence that can be used to describe this situation. And while it does capture the situation of these people without any sort of bias or negative connotation, it is, especially for journalists, somewhat of a mouthful. Some shorter variations might include "an unregistered person" or an “irregular migrant.”

Ultimately though, you should always provide context when you are describing these people. We would advise that you focus on how any given person found themselves in this situation. Did they cross the border without authorization, or did their visa expire?

If you’re looking for suitable terminology in other languages, you can find some tips here

Some Useful Links:

  • Interested in an app with all the migration terms and definitions, along with translations of those terms into all the official languages of the European Union? If so, download the EMN app to have all this at your disposal;
  • Are you interested in numbers? All the current statistical information in Czechia is gathered by the Czech Statistical Office: Foreigners in the Czech Republic. Here you can find numbers, nationalities, distribution, and education of foreigners, as well as information about registered refugees;
  • You can also get a more general Europe-wide overview Eurostat – the EU Statistical Office

  • IOM (International Migration Office);

  • EU citizens' perception of migration (among other things) is monitored by Eurobarometer;

  • Data and statistics on labor migration is gathered by ILO (International Labour Organization);
  • If you want to focus specifically on data regarding refugees, you should check the UCNHR website (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees). You can find the website of the Czech branch here;
  • UNCHR also publishes an overview of Mediterranean arrivals every week, as well as their profiles and other general data;
  • The Migrant’s Files gather data on all the cases of people losing their lives trying to cross the EU border. 

Autor: Kristýna Brožová

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