John Green Nails the Important Difference Between Migrants and Refugees

September 10th 2015

Kyle Jaeger

As the world attempts to make sense of the current refugee crisis, with war and poverty forcing millions to flee their homes in the Middle East and Northern Africa, a question of semantics has arisen. What is the difference between refugees and migrants, and what does that difference mean in terms of international law?

Author and YouTube vlogger John Green has taken up that question in a video that effectively summarizes the crisis and explains why those making the passage from Syria, where civil war has displaced more than four million people over the past four years, to countries such as Greece and Italy are refugees, as opposed to migrants. 

"This has often been called a migrant crisis, but it really isn't because migrants choose to leave their homes in search of better education or employment opportunities," Green states. According to the United Nations High Commissioner, the definition of a refugee is a person who is "fleeing armed conflict or persecution," and "for whom the denial of asylum has potentially deadly consequences."

So what is the difference, legally speaking?

Following the 1951 Refugee Convention, refugees have been entitled to certain protections under international law.

"These include the right not to be returned to their country of origin if their safety cannot be assured, the right not to be penalized for entering a country illegally if they request asylum, and the rights to life, security, religious expression, primary education, free access to courts, and equal treatment by taxing authorities," Green said.

"If a migrant arrives illegally in the European Union, they can be turned around and in most countries sent home fairly quickly,” Green continued. "But a refugee—and most of the people arriving in Europe right now are refugees—they have certain rights under international law that all of Europe and basically all of the world has agreed to for the last 65 years. In short: European countries have no obligations to refugees until those refugees arrive in Europe."