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What does the word “refugee” mean?

Migrant, asylum seeker, refugee… These words each have their own specific definitions but are sometimes used incorrectly.

What is the difference between the words “refugee”, “migrant” and “asylum seeker”?

The 1951 Geneva Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees (ratified by Canada) provides a legal definition for the word “refugee”. According to this definition, a refugee is someone who meets the following conditions: 

  • Has a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion
  • Is outside of their country of nationality 
  • Is unable or unwilling to return to their country of nationality

This definition is also used in Canadian law in Article 96 of the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act.

People sponsored by a Group of Five or Community Sponsors within the Private Sponsorship of Refugees Program must have a refugee status document.

An asylum seeker is someone who claims to be a refugee but whose asylum claim is still ongoing. In 2023 in Canada, there were 144,035 asylum claims (the data posted is considered preliminary and subject to change).

Lastly, according to the United Nations, the word “migrant” refers to “someone who changes his or her country of usual residence, irrespective of the reason for migration or legal status.” 

What are the limits to the definition of “refugee”?

The definition given by the Geneva Convention excludes certain groups of people from being able to obtain refugee status, such as:

  • Internally displaced people
  • People who were forced to leave their country but who don’t have personal fears of persecution, e.g., because of a climate threat

Who can assess someone’s refugee status?

It depends on the country the person is in. In some countries, including Canada, national authorities are in charge of refugee status determination. In Canada, this is done through the Immigration and Refugee Board (IRB). The United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) is tasked with registering and processing claims in other countries. 

What does the recognition of refugee status imply?

Acknowledging someone’s refugee status entails recognizing that this person cannot go back to their country of origin. They are then granted international protection, and it becomes technically illegal to deport them to their country of origin (principle of non-refoulement). In Canada, refugees recognized by the IRB or resettled through resettlement and sponsorship programs are given permanent residence status. 

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