Glossary Term


There is no universally accepted definition of the term migrant, and the term is not defined by international law.

Traditionally, the word migrant (or, more accurately, international migrant) has been used to refer to people who choose to move across international borders, not because of a direct threat of persecution, serious harm, or death, but exclusively for other reasons, such as to improve their conditions by pursuing work or education opportunities, or to reunite with family. Migrants in this sense of the word—unlike refugees—continue in principle to enjoy the protection of their own government, even when they are abroad. If they return, they will continue to receive that protection.

Nevertheless, the word migrant is used by some actors as an umbrella term to refer to any person who moves within a country or across a border, temporarily or permanently, and for a variety of reasons. In this sense, the term covers legally defined categories such as migrant workers and smuggled migrants, as well as others whose status or means of movement is not specifically defined under international law, such as international students.

UNHCR recommends that —except in very specific contexts— the word migrant should not be used as a catchall term to refer to refugees or to people who are likely to be in need of international protection, such as asylum-seekers. To do so risks undermining access to the specific legal protections that States are obliged to provide to refugees