What is the difference between a Migrant, a Refugee and an Asylum Seeker?


In our world today, we often hear these terms tossed around; migrant, refugee, asylum seeker and immigrant. But, do we know their significance? Might some people around us or in our congregations categorize themselves under one of these terms? As Christians, we need more education on the terminology associated with immigration. This short video below helps us understand these terms and their significance.


Migrants are people who are leaving their home country and pursuing residency in another place, generally to find work, seek education, or to be reunited with their families. Unlike refugees, migrants can return home to their country if they wish.

“Migrant” is a difficult label, however, and is easily abused or misunderstood. Many people in Central America face extreme poverty and lack of resources (such as food, shelter, access to public services) to meet their basic needs. They are labeled “migrants” even though they have the same limited options a refugee may have.

Some believe that that the term migrant should be redefined as a more precise, neutral term. As currently defined, a “migrant” might be someone who relocates for a job, just as easily as it could be a mother fleeing Guatemala because of horrific gang violence. The two situations are not comparable, but currently the same label would be applied in both cases.


A refugee is any person who has been forced to flee their country due to war, persecution, or natural disaster, because their home government cannot or will not protect them.

When a refugee flees, they are registered with an official agency, such as a government or the United Nations, which allows them to gain access to state and international aid and assistance.

Refugees have legal protections guaranteed by the United Nations Refugee Agency, or UNHCR, including economic and social rights, and the ability to bring immediate family with them. Every refugee is initially an asylum seeker, although not every asylum seeker becomes a refugee.

Asylum Seeker

Asylum seekers are not officially designated refugees, but they have appealed to achieve refugee status. They are leaving their country of origin in order to escape war or persecution due to their nationality, race, religion, or political affiliation.

Under recent decisions made by US Attorney General Jeff Sessions, gang and domestic violence are no longer reasons one can seek asylum in the United States, even if a person’s home government does not provide adequate protection. As a result, families fleeing threats of death by gangs are considered migrants and therefore not be granted any special protections or permitted to seek asylum in the US.

A large number of people who come to the US-Mexico border are appealing for asylum because of dire economic circumstances or because of gang or domestic violence. Under current US law, none of these people qualify for asylum because the government does not acknowledge it to be a credible or reasonable fear.

Our hope is that as people of faith, we continue to educate ourselves on what the laws say but also on how to show compassion, and dignity for those displaced. We truly believe that as Christians we are called to do both and not have to choose one over another.


Asylum in the United States

Sessions Says Domestic and Gang Violence Are Not Grounds for Asylum

Protecting Refugees: questions and answers from the United Nations

Al Jazeera Will Not Say Mediterranean 'Migrants' but We Should

Differences between migrants and asylum seekers by Preemptive Love