Migrants vs. Immigrants vs. Refugees – The Difference

Two commonly confused words are migrant vs. immigrant.  Let’s have a quick look at the two, in addition to the word “refugee:”

  • A migrant is a person who moves to a country temporarily to pursue work, education, or something else to improve their life.
  • An immigrant is a person who moves to a new country seeking a new home, and they generally intend to make it permanent. 
  • A refugee is anyone who enters a country against their will or because they are unable or unwilling to return to their previous country because of political events or natural disasters. 

Migrants, immigrants, and refugees are three terms that can describe a person who has moved from their home country. While many people erroneously use the words “migrant” and “immigrant” interchangeably, they each have different meanings. 

So what is the difference between the two, and how are migrants and immigrants different from refugees? 

As you migrate through this article, you will leave with the knowledge you need to understand these three terms thoroughly, and as you know, knowledge is power. 

It’s time to level up!

The Meanings of Migrant

The word “migrant” has a few different but related meanings. The most common definition is anyone who moves from one place to another. It does not matter if it is from city to city, state to state, country to country, or some combination of those options. 

A migrant is a mover. 

The second meaning is where users run into confusion when contemplating the difference between migrants and immigrants, as a migrant also refers to an individual who has willingly left their own country to seek new opportunities within another. 

Most often, migrants do not intend to become a citizen of that country but temporarily hope to change their circumstances by pursuing education, job opportunities, or some other advantage that will improve their life situation. 

Whatever their reasoning for entering a new country, they will be considered a nonimmigrant (not an immigrant) in most circumstances. If they do not follow proper procedures and apply for a nonimmigrant visa, the government can remove them from the country. 

Immigrants

When considering migrant vs. immigrant, notice that embedded within the word “immigrant” is the word “migrant.” That is not a coincidence, as the word involves a form of migration – the first definition relating to anyone who moves from one place to another. 

However, an immigrant is not the same as a migrant when considering the other definition. Migrants seek an opportunity within a new country and expect their stay to be temporary, whereas immigrants migrate to a new country to build a permanent home.

The proper procedure is to acquire a permanent resident card (green card) to reside and work in the country legally. If an immigrant fails to obtain one, the government can remove them, just like a migrant who does not acquire proper documentation. 

After five to eight years living within their new country, immigrants may file for naturalized citizenship, which means they will become official citizens of the new nation upon approval. 

Being married to a natural citizen of that country can reduce the mandatory time limit for a few years, but an immigrant must be 18 years or older before they can apply. 

Refugees

Refugees are also migrants, but their circumstances for coming to a new country are significantly different from migrants or immigrants. These individuals are not entering a new country by choice but through necessity. 

For example, if a natural disaster such as a hurricane demolishes a city, the inhabitants may be forced to flee to a new location. They are refugees because they did not migrate willingly; circumstances forced them. 

Other situations include political reasons, such as when a person is forced out of their country to escape war or persecution within the original country.

There is, however, an unusual situation where other migrants can officially become refugees. If that person has willingly come to the country but becomes a victim of human trafficking and can no longer willingly leave, that circumstance fulfills refugee status. 

A Quick Recap

While I have tried to simplify these terms as much as possible, here is a quick cheat-sheet to help you understand the difference of migrant vs. immigrant, as well as refugee: 

  • A migrant is a person who moves to a country temporarily to pursue work, education, or something else to improve their life. They must have a nonimmigrant visa or risk government removal but can return to their home country at will.
  • An immigrant is a person who moves to a new country seeking a new home and intends that stay to be permanent. They must have a permanent resident card or risk government removal but may also return to their home country at will. 
  • refugee is anyone who enters a country against their will or because they are unable or unwilling to return to their previous country because of political events or natural disasters. For whatever reason, they cannot return to their home countries. 

Related: Here is another article about commonly confused words tragedy and travesty.


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