Refugees vs Economic Migrants

      A refugee is defined as someone who is forced to flee his or her country due to a well-founded fear of persecution for reasons of race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a particular social group.

      People may also choose to flee their home country to escape poverty or to seek increased security or education. People doing this would be called economically motivated migrants. While governments have an obligation to shelter refugees, there is no obligation to accept or shelter migrants.

      Since economic migrants know their desired host country would under ordinary circumstances be unwilling to accept them, they often present themselves as refugees. They falsely claim torture, beatings, rape, or other persecution back home, knowing it is extremely difficult for immigration officials to verify such events in a faraway place.

      Even when all facts are clear, the distinction between a migrant and legitimate refugee can be very blurry. Consider this example, brought by Jørgen Carling in a blog post:

The ‘two kinds of people (economic migrants and refugees)’ argument is further undermined by the drawn-out trajectories of many current migrants. A Nigerian arriving in Italy might have left Nigeria for reasons other than a fear of persecution, but ended up fleeing extreme danger in Libya. Conversely, a Syrian might have crossed into Jordan and found safety from the war, but been prompted by the bleak prospects of indeterminate camp life to make the onward journey to Europe. Regardless of the legal status that each one obtains in Europe, they are both migrants who have made difficult decisions, who deserve our compassion, and whose rights need to be ensured.

      If the economic hardship a person is fleeing from is sufficiently severe, does it really matter that they don’t meet the technical definition of a refugee? Then again, absorbing refugees is tremendously difficult and expensive for host countries. Accepting even just people fleeing well documented persecution may be a politically unpopular burden. Not applying strict requirements may lead countries to refuse to accept any refugees at all.

Migrants vs. Refugees in Europe

How Refugees and Migrants Mix

A brief report from the United Nations High Commission for Refugees explaining how economic migrants, refugees, and others mix together attempting to reach Europe.

How Europeans Distinguish

Several news articles detailing how European countries are increasingly attempting to distinguish between refugees and economic migrants to stem the flow of people crossing the Mediterranean to the continent.

Refugee Detectives

‘The Refugee Detectives’- an article in the Atlantic Magazine explaining how German immigration authorites use technology and detective work to distinguish economic migrants from refugees.

In the United States

Caravans of people fleeing Central America through Mexico arrive at the U.S. border. The Trump administration accuses them of being economic migrants attempting to get around immigration law. An articel in the New Republic examining this controversy and the difficulties with categorizing these people.

Difference Between Economic Migrants and Refugees

A scholarly analysis of the differnces between economic migrants and refugees and the difficulty of distinguishing between the two from the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative.


‘To help real refugees, be firm with economic migrants’ an opinion piece by Nick Cohen in The Guardian.

Human Rights Haggadah Blog