From 'asylum-seekers' to 'evacuees', here are some displacement-related terms you need to know

There remains a lot of confusion in people’s minds about the distinctions among refugees, displaced persons, evacuees, asylum-seekers and migrants. Here’s a simple primer!

By Shashi Tharoor

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Published: Thu 30 May 2024, 6:59 PM

The ongoing wars in Gaza and Ukraine have brought the word “refugee” back into the headlines. That’s where it was frequently found when I began my United Nations career in 1978 with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. Sadly, conflict, and the resultant displacement of human beings, is once again a major issue of concern. But there remains a lot of confusion in people’s minds about the distinctions among refugees, displaced persons, evacuees, asylum-seekers and migrants. Here’s a simple primer!

A “refugee”, in international law, is a person who flees his or her home country out of a well-founded fear of persecution or a threat to his life and safety. Increasingly the term has expanded in popular consciousness to include all those driven by a compelling, involuntary, and unforeseen need to evade conflict, persecution, war, or violence. The international community bears the responsibility of ensuring that they are not forcibly “refouled” -- sent back involuntarily to circumstances jeopardizing their life and freedom.

According to the OED, the initial usage of the term “refugee” pertained to the French Huguenots, Protestant Christians who migrated to England after the revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685. The term itself originates from the French word réfugier, meaning “to seek refuge”, and traces its roots to the Latin refugium, a “place of refuge”, with the core element being fugere, meaning to flee.

When one seeks safety within one’s own country, the term “refugee” does not apply. The UN’s Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement define “Internally Displaced Person” (IDP) as “Persons or groups of persons who have been forced or obliged to flee or to leave their homes or places of habitual residence, in particular as a result of or in order to avoid the effects of armed conflict, situations of generalized violence, violations of human rights or natural or human-made disasters, and who have not crossed an internationally recognized State border.” Internally displaced people, caught in the midst of conflict, are vulnerable to being exploited as targets or human shields by the warring parties. The principal obligation for their aid and safeguard lies with their home governments.

Displaced persons could also be “evacuated” in an organized way from a conflict or disaster zone, relocating them to a safer area. The term “evacuee” originated in 1934, borrowing from the French word évacué, and refers to an individual who has undergone a planned relocation from a dangerous place for the purpose of protection.

An individual identified as “an asylum-seeker” is someone who asserts refugee status but has not undergone a formal assessment of their claim. This individual would have submitted an application for asylum, contending that a return to their home country would result in “persecution on account of race, religion, nationality or political beliefs”. An asylum-seeker could be recognized as a refugee or be rejected and deported as an illegal alien.

Either way, they are “exiles” from their homelands – a term derived from the Old French word exil and the Latin word exilium, both indicating “banishment”. The concept of “exile”, synonymous with “banishment”, was prevalent in ancient Rome, where the Senate possessed the authority to exile individuals and entire families. In ancient Greece, towns utilized exile as both a legal and social punishment. Exile can be internal, involving compelled relocation within one’s own country, or external, which entails deportation beyond the borders of one’s country of residence. The use of exile for political motives by some governments aims to prevent the exiled opposition from organizing resistance or opposition within their home country. There is also “self-exile”, individuals choosing voluntary exile in order to safeguard themselves against persecution or legal action at home related to political or criminal activities.

The term “migrants” has its roots in the Latin word migrantem, signifying actions such as “to remove”, “depart”, or “move from one place to another”. Originally employed in the 1670s to describe the movement of animals, by the year 1807, it expanded to include the migration of individuals. “Migrant” is “an umbrella term, not defined under international law, denoting a person who moves away from his or her place of usual residence, whether within a country or across an international border, temporarily or permanently, for any reason including work or personal convenience. Many of you reading this newspaper are migrants!

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