Who is a Migrant?

The current very significant levels of human mobility have put migration, more than ever, under the spotlight. This has spurred debate about the usage of correct terminology regarding migration and in this context, the definition and meaning of the word ‘migrant’ has become quite pertinent.

IOM considers it important to use ‘migrant’ as an umbrella term covering a vast range of people moving away from their home. IOM defines a migrant as any person who is moving or has moved across an international border or within a State away from his/her habitual place of residence, regardless of the person’s legal status; whether the movement is voluntary or involuntary; what the causes for the movement are; or what the length of the stay is.

Migrants can be compelled to leave because of war, persecution, widespread human rights violations, natural disasters or because they have been forcibly recruited or deceived about what awaits them at their destination.

Sometimes migrants are left with no other choice but to leave home, because they have no access to sufficient livelihoods, food or clean water, or their children do not have the option of going to school because of a broken education system. In other cases, migrants choose to go abroad to join family or look for a job.

Migrants can have a visa and move for work purposes or, due to the lack of regular migration options, they may be forced to resort to the services of unscrupulous smugglers.

The length of stay of a migrant varies from one case to another. Some migrants stay briefly in their new environment, before continuing the journey or going back. In other cases, migrants settle for a longer period of time, building a new life in their new place of residence.

Migrants can be in transit in a country but end up being unable to reach the planned destination; they may be frontier or seasonal workers moving back and forth between two countries; or they may be granted refugee status and settle permanently in the host country, waiting for the cause of their persecution to cease, a change that may never take place.

International organizations use the term migrant in different ways in line with their respective mandates. Among others, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees rightly underlines the predicament of refugees for which a specific protection regime is provided in international law and calls for excluding refugees from the broader group of “migrants”.

The Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights has called for the word 'migrant' to be used as a neutral term for a group of people who have in common a lack of citizenship attachment to their host country, and not one that would exclude refugees or other legal categories.

Refugees are indeed particularly vulnerable and deserve specific attention and protection, along with other migrants who are at a particular risk, such as unaccompanied migrant children, victims of trafficking, internally displaced persons, and many more.

When confronted with life-threatening situations, discussions on terminology may be seen as somewhat sterile, but terminology can have an impact on our understanding of the reality. Numerous migrants are at risk for multiple reasons, which can be pre-existing or which arose during the journey.

Along the migration routes, migrants may find themselves in a variety of situations, and move from one to another of the categories we use to give some clarity to complex migration flows.  Using the term migrant in its broader sense to cover all people who are on the move, irrespective of the causes of the movement, of whether it is out of a choice or not, of the person’s legal status, and of the length of his or her stay, ensures that we can capture this complexity and enables us to identify all the possible vulnerabilities and to adjust the measures that we adopt to protect and assist them.

The aim of having an umbrella term is not to level all the differences between the situations of persons on the move. It is exactly the opposite: it allows us to grasp the complexity of the reality and treat migrants as individual human beings, taking into consideration their particular needs and respecting their rights.

Specific sets of rights are granted to specific categories (e.g. refugees are entitled to international protection, and unaccompanied migrant children have the right to the appointment of a legal guardian). But human rights are universal and beyond the few rights that are granted only to one specific category, all migrants, simply by virtue of being human, are rights-holders.