The distinction between asylum seekers, refugees and Economic migrants

There is much confusion in the media and in public debate generally about asylum seekers, refugees and economic migrants. The following defines these terms and explains the extent to which these categories overlap. It is written from the point of view of the laws and immigration practices of the countries in Europe, North America and elsewhere which are parties to the 1951 United Nations Convention on the Status of Refugees (1951 Refugee Convention). 

"Asylum seeker" means a person who has applied for asylum under the 1951 Refugee Convention on the Status of Refugees on the ground that if he is returned to his country of origin he has a well-founded fear of persecution on account of race, religion, nationality, political belief or membership of a particular social group. He/ She remains an asylum seeker for so long as his/her application or an appeal against refusal of his/her application is pending. To describe a person as an asylum seeker is in principle a neutral statement, not making any assumption as to whether his claim is justified or not. Unfortunately "asylum seeker" and "refugee" are frequently conflated, giving rise to much confusion.

"Refugee" in this context means an asylum seeker whose application has been successful. In its broader context it means a person fleeing e.g. civil war or natural disaster but not necessarily fearing persecution as defined by the 1951 Refugee Convention. 

"Economic migrant" means a person who has left his own country and seeks by lawful or unlawful means to find employment in another country. Most countries with advanced economies, has specific policies in place to facilitate the mobility of highly skilled professionals and investors into their respective national economy. These people are considered desirable migrants and are identified as expatriates.

When the term economic migrants is used, it generally refers to the unskilled and semi-skilled individuals from impoverished third world countries. Economic migrants are not eligible for asylum under the 1951 Geneva Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees. However, any migrant arriving on territories of most countries has the right to have their asylum claim reviewed. This is a human right. If a migrant makes it to country’s territory and applies for asylum their claim is considered.

What happens if an asylum claim is accepted?

If a claim is allowed, the applicant receives the refugee status and is generally granted a number of years stay (based on the country’s law) in the country.  With it comes the right to work, access to state benefits (such as housing) and more significantly, the right to bring their family t, who will also receive refugee status.

Even if an asylum application is rejected, claimants generally have the right to appeal the initial decision. If the appeal still finds that the asylum claim is unfounded, the claimant has right for another appeal, if new evidence is presented to support the initial claim.

What happens if an asylum claim is rejected?

Asylum applications and appeals which are unsuccessful have been dismissed because of the failure of the applicants to persuade officials and immigration judges. Or in the majority of cases the unsuccessful asylum seeker is, in fact, an economic migrant who has tried to take advantage of the asylum system in the absence of any other available means of obtaining lawful entry into the country. This conclusion is reinforced when one considers that most asylum seekers are young men and women.

The position of unsuccessful asylum seekers is similar to that of those who enter on short term visas and overstay. They are granted temporary admission while their applications/appeals are pending, but once they have exhausted their rights and are still unsuccessful they no longer have any lawful right to remain in the country. 

If this appeal also fails, and by now several months are likely to have passed, the refused applicants are expected to arrange their departure from the country. If the applicant refuses, the government will arrange for their deportation. Many genuine asylum claimants as well as so-called economic migrants will use every legal tool available to them to appeal a refused asylum claim, which creates bottlenecks in the asylum system.