REFUGEE or IMMIGRANT? what’s the difference?


This is not a new question.  It has been tossed around for the past several months, as hundreds of thousands of people from Syria and Afghanistan attempt to relocate to European countries.    It is a dramatic situation, with elderly people, people with disabilities, and little children being carried by parents and friends to places where they hope to find a new life.   What they are leaving behind is a homeland where some of their families have lived for hundreds of years.  But their eyes are to the north and west.  They are desperate.

Some nations have been welcoming to the massive crowds of these people.  Resettlement means for them going through a rough period of getting there, living in uneasy circumstances for a period of time, and then adjusting to life in a new place, with new rules, new customs, and many adjustments.

Some countries  welcome refugees, but not so much for immigrants at this point in history.  So, what’s the difference?  Here are a couple of very simplified suggestions:

  • A refugee, by definition is someone who is attempting to escape a dangerous situation.  They have to be able to  prove that their life, and that of their family, is endangered if they stay in their homeland.   War, terrorism, or political targeting are regular reasons for leaving the country to find a safer place in which to live. For women, it may be to escape a society in which women are denigrated or even persecuted
  • Immigrants are a more generalized kind of emigres.  They want to leave their homeland for many reasons, mostly surrounding economic  issues.  They want a chance to pursue a career which is not available to them.  They want a better lifestyle, in a more secure economy, or with a better educational opportunity for their children.

Either of these definitions may include such factors as religious persecution, gender issues, sexual orientation issues, or clan/tribe conflict.   Life in many of the countries producing emigres may be terrifying.   It seems as if most nations have their own brand of issues which lead people to want to escape.

Arrival in receiving nations is a mixed bag.   Even given the most dramatic of stories, many nations are struggling themselves, and don’t believe they can handle massive numbers of refugees or immigrants.  Some nations are ready to open their doors to specified limits of refugees from terror, but are skeptical of people who are just seeking new economic possibilities…thus replacing employees native to the country.

Obviously, there is fear on the part of target nations.  Those fears may be rational…or irrational.   The United States, which has agreed to receive 10,000 of the Middle Eastern refugees, is being cautious (even overly-cautious) in extending that number to a more altruistic figure.   Some nations have gone to the extreme of putting up barbed wire fences and placing military guards to deter the travelers.   There is controversy all over the European continent as nations try to design their level of response.

There is a tendency to categorize and demonize the character of the refugees and immigrants.   Many choose to see them as poor, uneducated, potential terrorists, criminals,  and drains on a society.  To the contrary, it is being reported that a huge number  of those seeking new homes are middle class, educated, and industrious.

In the USA this issue of Middle Eastern refugees has added to an already heated argument about the flow of immigrants and refugees from Mexico and South America.  Myths and fabrications abound, complicating the discussions and arguments.

The issue of differentiation of purpose of emigration is only one factor.  There are many questions of economics, ideologies, and politics which exist, and which make the topic a hot one at this point in an already-emotional presidential election.  In another blog posting to come I will discuss the issue of citizenship.  One topic at a time!


Photo Credit:  UNHCR

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