What is the difference between a migrant, asylum seeker and refugee?


These words have legal definitions. They are also connected to politics.

According to the dictionary, a migrant is someone who has moved from one country to another voluntarily for economic, political or cultural reasons.  It implies free choice.  However, the term is so general, it does not adequately explain all the motivations for why the individual has moved.  During the present crisis, it has increasingly had a pejorative meaning and can easily dehumanise the individual person.

According to the Geneva Convention , a refugee is someone who is unable or unwilling to return to their country of origin owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion,

nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion.”

All refugees are migrants but not all migrants are refugees.

An asylum seeker is someone asking permission to be given the legal status of refugee and thus being allowed to stay in a certain territory.  The decision process varies from country to country in Europe and can take from many months to several years to complete.

An undocumented asylum seeker is someone who has not yet registered for asylum or whose asylum process has ended. This is common among displaced people who are trying to reach a destination where they can reunite with family/friends or find a language they speak. It is also increasingly common because governments are beginning to reject asylum seekers on mass, despite knowing it is unsafe to return these people home. So they become undocumented, in limbo, and incredibly vulnerable to exploitation.

At times of war and humanitarian crisis, the UNHCR states that migrants should generally be considered to be refugees.   This means that, for example, most Syrians would surely therefore count as refugees.

Refugees have legal rights.  Once someone gains the status of refugee, then a country has a duty to allow them to remain.

EEA and the Refugee Campaign tend to use the term “refugee”, not because all the individuals have gained this status, nor because we dismiss the idea that, among the crowds, there are economic migrants. We have chosen generally to use this term because we would rather communicate in a way that errs on the side of grace than of refusal to want to help.

Download: what-is-the-difference-updated

What is causing the present exodus? Why are so many people coming now? Where do they want to go?


What is causing the present exodus?

The simple causes are war and/or oppression and/or a failed state and/or religious extremism and/or the inability to survive with adequate food, shelter & medicine.  People are fleeing for their lives to find safety and protection.

Refugees have been struggling to get to Europe for many years. However, it is in the last eighteen months that the numbers have mushroomed. Well over a million refugees arrived into the EU in 2015, but only 292540 were given official refugee status.. The majority of refugees coming into Europe in 2015 were from Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, Eritrea, Nigeria and Somalia.

In 2016, with restrictions blocking refugees from travelling from Turkey to Greece, the numbers of refugees in Turkey has risen to at least 2.2 million.  Also, the Central Mediterranean route from North Africa to Italy has become more important. In the first half of 2016, the top nationalities for this route are Eritrea, Nigeria, Gambia, Somalia, Ivory Coast, Guinea, Sudan, Mali, Senegal, Morocco, Egypt and Syria.

Politicians will argue over the reasons people risk their lives to come to Europe but the following are all likely to be contributing.

  1. The underfunding in the UNHCR camps in the Middle East which make survival almost impossible.
  2. The spread of barbarism and the intensification of fighting in Syria and elsewhere.
  3. People smugglers being well-organised.
  4. Social media giving advice and encouragement on how to get to Europe.
  5. A perception that it is possible to succeed in relocating and that some countries will welcome you.
  6. Poverty and family encouragement to make the journey for economic reasons.
  7. A sense that there really is no other choice but to leave everything and everyone and take the perilous journey to Europe

Where do the refugees wish to go? They want to go to a place of peace, safety and freedom and where they perceive that the nation will welcome them and help them to settle. If given a choice, many seek to go to a country where they have contacts. Many will choose a country whose economy is strong enough to cope with new people and where they can find work and/or education.

Nearly two-thirds of asylum applications have been received by Germany and Hungary, with Sweden, Italy and Austria also receiving large numbers. In 2015, Germany received more than 476000 asylum applications but more than a million people in total. Hungary received 177130 applications

Sources: UNHCR, Global Trends 2014 EU, Migration and Home Affairs

IAFR, Refugee Realities 2015


Are the migrants really so desperate?


The most desperate Syrians, Afghans, Eritreans, Nigerians, Somalis etc. have not come to Europe. They are too poor, traumatised, oppressed, old or ill to travel. Some have reached relative safety in refugee camps in the region but often do not have adequate supplies to maintain life. However, this does not mean that those coming to Europe are OK and simply coming in order to find more comfortable, prosperous lives.

Our media and politicians tend to categorise the migrants as all the same. However, this is foolish.   Are all migrants escaping appalling lives? No. That is naïve. Are they all economic migrants? No.  That is the attitude of those who do not want to look closely at reality.

How do we work out who is who? There is no simple, fool-proof system but doing our best to check where people have come from and the circumstances in which they lived is the only thing our governments can do. There are then international legal requirements which will dictate who should be allowed to stay.

Yes, most migrants have spent a lot of money to reach Europe. That does not necessarily mean they have any money left. Most have mobile telephones.  Of course they do.  They would never have been able to travel without them.   Many of the migrants, especially the Syrians, are well-educated and had good jobs in the past.  That underlines quite how awful life back home must have been that they would choose to give it all up and risk everything to come to Europe.


Our country is a “Christian nation”. How do we make sure it stays a “Christian nation”? And what about prioritising helping Christian refugees?


Some argue that their nation is ‘Christian’ and therefore cannot and should not allow too many non-Christians to settle. Much of Europe has been profoundly shaped by the Bible and the influence of Christianity.  But this has never meant that all the peoples have had a living Christian faith and have always lived out their faith as Christ would want us to. And increasingly, our nations are pluralist with many worldviews and faiths.

If we wish to live up to our Christian heritage, then the Bible repeatedly commands us to welcome and assist the vulnerable foreigner. Having done so, we will then need to face the challenge of helping those of different faiths and cultures to integrate well. This is a dual responsibility both on the host to welcome and the foreigner to integrate. As our nations face this challenge, there is an opportunity for Christians to enter the discussion about what our nations are asking newcomers to integrate into. What are our nations’ values and culture? Can we seize the opportunity to promote a stronger, biblical vision for society that seeks the wellbeing of all, with freedom of conscience for all, regardless of their faith?

What about just helping Christian refugees?  No! Most Syrian Church leaders insist that Christians should not be given special treatment. Assigning refugee status or offering asylum must be on the basis of vulnerability and need. To do otherwise not only violates international refugee and humanitarian law, but also the teaching of our Saviour. (The Good Samaritan looked beyond religious and ethnic labels to show genuine neighbourliness to the one in need).

Are there some Christian refugees who are particularly vulnerable? Undoubtedly – let us welcome them! And are there legitimate security concerns concerning some refugees? Of course – appropriate safeguards must be put in place! However, let us be clear that we accept refugees on the basis of their need – not their religion. And we exclude those deemed to be a security threat on the basis of evidence – not their religion.

Christians from some areas are certainly among the most vulnerable. Heinous atrocities targeting Christians and other religious minorities have been committed, especially by Daesh (so-called “Islamic State”). Christian refugees who have fled from areas controlled by extremists have a strong case for asylum, based on vulnerability. But a balanced assessment must recognize two important factors.

Firstly, many Christian refugees have not fled from areas overrun by Daesh and have not been under direct threat on account of their religion. Of course, many have a genuine fear of extremists, and especially of an Islamist power-grab if the current Syrian government were to fall. The threat they feel is commonly on account of their perceived political affiliation (Christians are assumed to support the regime) rather than because of their religion – threats also felt by other groups.

Secondly, it is not just Christians who have fled from areas controlled by extremists – the majority who have left these areas are Muslims whose values and ways of life differ from those of the extremists. They too have fled because of their extreme vulnerability. While the danger of ill-intentioned infiltrators amongst asylum applicants must be taken seriously, it would be perverse to label all non-Christians who have fled extremist threats as suspected extremists rather than to recognize their vulnerability.


Providing asylum in the West might meet the immediate need for a place of safety (though don’t underestimate the challenge of integration, including for Christians). However, what about longer-term aspirations? What about the future of the Church in the home country? Christians long to be able to stay in their homelands. Church leaders are grieved that so many are leaving, even while they fully understand the desperation of those wanting to get out.


How many of these people are Muslims? What about Islamic terrorism?


There are no exact figures available regarding how many Muslims are among the refugees, but the majority belong to the Muslim community. However, it is important to acknowledge the sizeable number of Christian refugees arriving, especially from Iran, and also Yazidis. In some places, churches have doubled in size because of refugees joining them.

Of course, there is the possibility that so called Islamic State (IS) or other extremist Muslim organisations will be smuggling terrorists to Europe. There is also some evidence of attempts to radicalise alienated refugees once they have reached Europe. The Würzburg train attack was carried out by a refugee, the Reutlingen attack by an asylum seeker.

On the other hand, IS does not have to take the risk and smuggle terrorists to Europe by making them risking the dangerous trip over the Mediterranean Sea: In our big cities in Europe radical movements are fishing for their clients among the deprived third generation Muslim community for a long time already; youth who are in search for identity and belonging. The Brussels, Paris, Nice & Rouen attacks were all carried out by Europeans or those who were already settled here.

Studies have shown that most violent Muslims, bent on holy war / Jihad, share a similar background. They are not devout believers, neither are they poor or brainwashed. Most are middle class, educated, married parents. Many are converts to Islam. The journey towards radicalisation begins with feeling humiliated and unwanted by society.  A radical Muslim usually starts by feeling humiliated and angry that society would not accept him/her. The next stage of the journey is to find a group of likeminded friends who provide acceptance, security, meaning, a sense of family. The group meets in private and members feed each other’s sense of bitterness towards wider society. Then indoctrination takes place where it becomes believed that to hit back violently at Western society / the “infidel” is a justifiable act of defence. At this stage, an individual may well cut themselves off from their family and other friends. And then finally, the group’s leader will swiftly prepare the individual for their act of terrorism.

You can read more about political and radical Islam in Christine Schirrmacher’s Political Islam – when faith turns out to be politics

When we consider these common background factors of Islamic terrorists, it becomes plain that wider society has a huge role to play to prevent radicalisation. The more we can help Muslims to feel accepted, while of course expecting them to make efforts to fit in, the less radicalisation there will be. The converse is also true. If we fail in our responsibilities and allow Muslim refugees to feel unwanted, then we should not be surprised if they find their way into radicalising groups.

It is our task to become bridge builders to the Muslim community so that, not only are they not alienated and vulnerable to radicalisation but also so that our societies are happy and healthy.

Could an individual refugee who comes to your project be dangerous?  This is a tiny possibility so be sensible. A woman should never be alone with a man in the same room with the door closed (and the other way round). Never insult by implying you think all Muslims are dangerous.  Nevertheless, if somebody is unwilling or gets angry if the subject of political Islam or radicalism comes up, and if he/he does not want to distance him-/herself from political Islam or radicalism, be concerned. This implies that the person just sees Islam and political Islam as one and the same thing.    If project workers ever feel threatened, uneasy or directly attacked (verbally or physically), look for professional help and security people. Never try to downplay or excuse such an event or solve it yourselves.



How much religious freedom should be granted to people of other faiths? What about harassment of Christian refugees?


There are things almost all of us used to take for granted before the refugee crisis became a major topic of attention for the media and for politicians. Various political figures and parties in Europe have now overtly challenged the Geneva Convention on Refugees, signed in 1951 (after the horrors of World War II), whereby more than 145 countries have committed to protect people who are persecuted, including on religious grounds, and lost their home country’s protection. Some claim we should simply stop welcoming people who seek protection. Some claim that only people persecuted because they were Christians deserve protection in ‘Christian’ European countries (see FAQ 7). The crisis is challenging our political values and principles of freedom, human dignity, equality, the rule of law as well as respect for human rights, including for minorities.

The settled opinion of the Christian religious freedom community—certainly so in Evangelical circles—is that religious freedom is for all. Freedom of thought, conscience and religion or belief (aka ‘FoRB’), just like any universally recognised human right (including the right to be protected from persecution), should be respected for everyone everywhere. These rights and freedoms are tied to our recognition that, although imperfect, all human beings are created in the likeness of God and possess inalienable dignity. As much as God is seeking and saving those who are lost, God calls people to seek him and find him; forced worship stinks to the nostrils of God.

Political and religious freedoms are among the reasons that attract exiles to Europe as opposed to other places. Europe’s understanding of religious freedom and human rights cannot differ from the universal principles. Freedom of thought, conscience and religion or belief is in principle maximal and should be recognised equally for all human beings. The manifestations of religion or belief (including expressing one’s worldview-based opinions and behaving according to them) can be regulated at a national or local level depending on the context, but outlawing certain expressions of faith or belief should only happen in very limited circumstances where genuine harm exists, such as threats, calls to violence, or proven danger for the rights and security of other people. Expression of faith or belief should not be banned simply because it is perceived as ‘extreme,’ ‘radical,’ ‘fundamentalist’ or ‘foreign,’ whatever the religion or belief. My belief and behaviour can always be perceived as extreme by someone else.

Diversity, however, is a challenge and needs proper governance. Europe’s history, whether ancient or more recent, is a blatant reminder of that. Surely, it could be argued that mismanagement of diversity in local or national politics, in Europe and elsewhere, has led to very intricate public policy challenges today. The integration – or, better, inclusion – of recent migrants and their children is one of the more pressing challenges. In this effort, it is important for Christians to value a culture of hospitality, which means recognising the culture and dignity of the other, while at the same time demanding of everyone to abide by common rules.

However, much of that discussion is beyond the realm of law: alongside others in our societies, Christians, individually or in community, need to foster virtues of civility which will help newcomers and established residents live together in harmony, including with their differences. Rejecting what is sometimes the most precious part of people’s identity – their faith or core sources of meaning, irrespective of whether that source is true or untrue – is often the best way to foster hostility and hatred.

Just as all the refugees should have their religious freedom protected, they also need help to understand that religious freedom is for all and that, in Europe, they must accept this fact.  This could be a challenging truth for some Muslims. Indeed, there have been troubling stories of harassment of non-Muslims in refugee camps. And many Muslims will find it hard to tolerate those who choose to explore the possibility of leaving Islam.

Christians should ask the authorities to ensure that religious freedom, including the right to change your faith is both maintained within the refugee communities but that it is also taught in a positive way to adults and also in schools.    Where necessary, protection must be provided for those in danger of persecution because of their faith, be that Christian, Yazidi, different kinds of Muslim or another faith.

Christians can help by providing opportunities for people of different faiths to come together in joint activities (sport, culture, meals etc.), by encouraging mutual understanding and in being sensitive in all their conversations about their own faith.  If Christian refugees of Muslim background join their church, they should understand the pressures they may well be under and also bear in mind basic security issues, e.g. not taking photos.


There are to many of them! How can we possibly cope?

    • The impression that the numbers of arrivals of refugees are impossible to cope with seems to be widespread. There are reasons, sometimes justified reasons, to think that way:
      • The media coverage of migration routes is often dramatic and – for good reasons – focuses on the growing number of migrants using unusual and often life-threatening routes to Europe. More significantly, the words crisiswavealiensthreat or combat illegal migration and the illegal and unsafe methods of travel of so many migrants increase the negative outlook and the impression of an invasion.
      • Migrants often travel in groups for various reasons. They often seek to enter countries through the same points. They often seek asylum in the same nations and are often grouped in the same welcome centres. This concentration is certainly a burden for the authorities in some places as well as local budgets.
    • However we need to take into account several sobering other factors:
      • It should be reminded that the dramatic, fear-provoking scenes on TV of men, women and children walking, climbing and swimming across thousands of kilometres with their families, suggestive of an invasion, are the result primarily of political choices. First, the war, insecurity and failed states at home. But second, Europe’s migration (or rather, anti-migration) policies. In other words, if thousands forcibly displaced people walk or take the boat, it is because they are denied the possibility of getting a visa and then to board a plane.
      • According to the UNHCR, there are more than 60 million exiles in the world. There are high predictions of about two million of them who will seek asylum in Europe in 2015-2016, meaning that 97% of the world’s exiles will remain outside of Europe. Supposing that happened, and they were all granted asylum, the newcomers would represent an increase of roughly 0,005% of the total population if we only count “Western Europe.”
    • One of the founding principles in the European Union is the principle of solidarity. It basically means that a nation should be willing to meet the needs of all others, and all nations for one. It also entails meeting the need of those peoples and nations who are less fortunate and supporting them in becoming more self-reliant and stable. Where this principle applied, it should lead to a policy of burden sharing among the EU Member States to cope with the numbers of asylum and welcome procedures. It also should lead to support for solutions in countries of origin and transit. The Western European nations, who represent the wealthiest group of economies in the world and are among the strongest political influences internationally, should surely consider this as within their reach.

    Many local communities have felt overwhelmed with refugees travelling through or significant numbers being placed there at least for the time being. It is not at all surprising that many have felt fearful. Others, battling with their own issues of housing or poverty, are resentful. Governments, with so many pressure upon them, have sometimes housed too many refugees in particular locations. Nevertheless, let’s rejoice that our nations offer stability, security and freedom which are so attractive to these refugees. And let’s work hard to welcome refugees, helping them find their place in our society, offering Christ’s love.


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