“Words matter. When a word is used to describe someone, it can build that person up or put that person down. The fact is that no one likes to be called names. Even small children in a playground know that words can hurt. The way we refer to others implies the opinion we have of them. So, using the proper vocabulary when speaking of someone is not a matter of superfluous courtesy. It is a matter of respect! Indeed, respect is the word that must be at the centre of all human interaction. "

Vanessa Russo
Brazilian Immigrant, USA

This Glossary was produced by the Panos Europe Institute with the collaboration of The United Alliance of Civilizations (UNAOC).


An asylum-seeker is an individual who has crossed an international border and is seeking international protection. In countries with individualized procedures, an asylum-seeker is someone whose claim for asylum has not yet been finally decided on by the country in which he or she has submitted it. Not every asylum-seeker will ultimately be recognized as a refugee, but every refugee is initially an asylum-seeker.

Country of destination

Either “country of destination”, or “destination country”, is the most neutral and accurate term to refer to the country in which a person intends to conclude their journey. These are preferable to “host country” which connotes that migrants are merely guests and that their stay is dependent on the invitation and at the expense of hosts. “Host country” also feeds the perception that migrants take advantage of benefits and services, but do not make contributions. To ensure that discussion of migration is consistent with human rights, it is essential to recognize that benefits, like social security, and services, like education, health care or shelter, are a right, and not simply a good-will gesture. Migrants are not passive recipients of hospitality and their stay is rarely temporary and non-contributing. Moreover, the response of the receiving or destination country may not be at all hospitable but instead may verge on the hostile and restrictive.

In the context of internally displaced persons (IDPs) the term “place of destination” should be used. In the context of refugees the term “country of refuge” can be used.

Country of origin

"Country of origin” is a neutral and accurate term to refer to the country from where a migrant, asylum-seeker or refugee originated. It is preferable to “sending country” or “home country”.

“Sending country” carries the connotation that the state would take an active part in making workers leave the country to find employment and residence abroad. “Home” carries certain connotations: it is a place where one lives and a place that creates a feeling of belonging. For many migrants, home is their place of residence in the destination country; they may no longer have a physical residence, family or social unit in their country of origin. The term “home country” discounts the experience of migrants who migrated when they were very young and therefore have little or no memory of their country of origin, its language, etc. It is also based on the misconception that all migrants and refugees could eventually go “home” regardless of how long they have stayed, how well they have integrated or conditions in the country of origin. It can fuel racist and anti-migrant ‘”go back home” campaigns that are often waged against second generation migrants – even when they may never have set foot in the country where their parents were born. Moreover, the term “home country” undermines efforts to integrate migrants and implies the highly damaging assertion that migrants could not, or should not, feel a sense of belonging in the country to which they have migrated.

In the context of internally displaced persons (IDPs) the term “place of habitual residence” should be used.

Displaced populations

Displaced populations are groups or individual people who leave their places of habitual residence, usually due to a sudden impact (or threat thereof), such as an earthquake, flood or conflict, as a coping mechanism and with the intent to return. Displacement can be within a country or across international borders.

Forced and voluntary migration

Forced migration describes an involuntary type of migration where an element of coercion exists. Examples of this type of coercion could include environmental disasters, chemical or nuclear disasters, famine, trafficking, war, conflict, human rights violations etc. Voluntary migration describes when people move of their own free will. However, as human mobility becomes more global and frequent, the traditional distinction between forced and voluntary migration has become less clear-cut. This leads to an increasingly compelling argument to address the rights of all migrants in a holistic way, regardless of their motives for migrating and their migration or residence status, while at the same time reinforcing the protections that have been built up in relation to specific groups.

At the same time, it is important to acknowledge the important distinctions between refugees – who cannot return to their place of origin even if they want to – and other migrants. Promoting the human rights of all migrants is compatible with upholding the existing framework for refugee protection. A concern to use inclusive language and better recognize and protect the human rights of all migrants must not dilute the needs of specific individuals or groups and the international legal framework that has evolved to protect them.

Host community

A host community is a community, or individual family households, that temporarily host and share private and public resources with populations of refugees or internally displaced persons (IDPs). Shelter is provided within defined temporary shelter sites, public buildings (camps or collective shelters) or in individual homes or residences. It is largely assumed that in many contexts, particularly in terms of conflict and violence, the majority of IDPs reside or seek refuge with hosts, family or friends, rather than in more traditional camp-like settings. It is important there- fore that when we talk about protection and response, we include the needs of the host communities, often already vulnerable, and who can be made even more so as a consequence of incoming IDPs.

Illegal migrant

The term “illegal migrant” should never be used. As any other person, migrants are not “illegal.” They are in an “irregular” situation or “undocumented”. The term “illegal” is not accurate; it is misleading, contributes to negative stereotyping and criminalizes migrants. Irregular entry and stay are administrative offences, not criminal offences; they involve no crimes against persons, property or national security, as noted by the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Human Rights of Migrants17. In 1975 the UN General Assembly adopted a resolution requesting “the United Nations organs and the specialized agencies concerned to utilize in all official documents the term “non-documented or irregular migrant workers” to define those workers that irregularly enter and/or surreptitiously enter another country to obtain work.

Similarly, it is never appropriate to refer to asylum-seekers or refugees as “illegal migrants”. On the one hand, their reasons for moving are different from those of migrants, and on the other, international law recognizes that those fleeing conflict or persecution may need to cross international borders without authorization and should not be penalized for doing so. In April 2013, the Associated Press changed its stylebook to make using the term “illegal immigrant” incorrect, stating that the term “illegal” should “only refer to an action, not a person”. Several other media groups have taken the same decision.

Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs)

Internally displaced persons (IDPs) are “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”.
The definition provided by the Guiding principles on internal displacement high- lights two elements: 1) the coercive or otherwise involuntary character of movement; and 2) the fact that such movement takes place within national borders. Incorrect, but frequently used terms, are “domestic refugees” or “internal refugees”. IDPs do not have an internationally recognized status in the same way that refugees are recognized as foreign nationals and protected under the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees. However, IDPs have rights under national and international law and should be protected on this basis.
We should also not use “IDP status”: while the term “refugee” implies a specific legal status under international law, the use of the term IDP does not. In most countries there is no legal status for IDPs as a group. In some contexts, singling out IDPs from the broader population by giving them a special legal status can run the risk of increasing their exposure to discrimination.

Irregular migration

Irregular migration is a cross-border movement that takes place outside the regulatory norms of the countries of origin, transit and destination. From the perspective of the country of destination it is entry, stay or work in a country without the necessary authorization or documents required under immigration regulations.

From the perspective of the country of origin, the irregularity is, for example, seen in cases in which a person crosses an international boundary without a valid passport or travel document or does not fulfill the administrative requirements for leaving the country.

Labour migration

Labour migration is defined as the movement of persons from one geographical location to another in order to find gainful employment. International labour migration involves the crossing of a border for the same purposes. In terms of economic theory there is no difference between internal (e.g. rural to urban) and international labour migration. Differences stem from legal issues that arise if someone wishes to take up employment in a foreign country or when an employer reaches over a border to recruit a worker.

In 2013, there were an estimated 232 million international migrants in the world (defined as persons outside their country of origin for 12 months or more) and approximately half of them were estimated to be economically active (i.e. being employed or seeking employment). Indeed, migration today is largely linked, directly or indirectly, to the world of work. Besides individuals crossing borders in search of employment, there are also accompanying family members who may end up in the labour market of the destination country; and training and education opportunities abroad may lead to employment, to give but two examples.


There is no internationally recognized definition of migrants. The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies’ policy on migration describes migrants as people who leave or flee their places of habitual residence to go to a new place, across international borders or within their own state, to seek better or safer perspectives. Migration can be forced or voluntary, but most of the time a combination of choices and constraints are involved, as well as the intent to live abroad for an extended period of time.

Although asylum-seekers and refugees often travel alongside migrants in so-called “mixed flows”, they have specific needs and are protected by a specific legal frame- work: they should generally not be conflated with migrants.

Migrant domestic worker

Migrant domestic workers are individuals who move to another country or region to better their material or social conditions and improve the prospects for them- selves or their family, and who are engaged in a work relationship performed in or for a household or households.

The ILO Domestic Workers Convention, 2011 (No. 189) sets standards for migrant domestic workers:

  • A written contract that is enforceable in the country of employment, or a written job offer, prior to traveling to the country of employment (Article 8).
  • Clear conditions under which migrant domestic workers are entitled to repatriation at the end of their employment (Article 8).
  • Protection of migrant domestic workers from abusive practices by private employment agencies (Article 15).
  • Co-operation among [origin] and [destination] countries to ensure the effective
    application to migrant domestic workers of the provisions of the Convention (Article 8).

Migrant worker

The term “migrant worker” refers to a person who is to be engaged or has been engaged in a remunerated activity in a state of which he or she is not a national.” United Nations Convention on the Protection of the Rights of all Migrant Workers and Members of their Families, 1990, Article

Migration corridor

A migration corridor is the migratory pathway between two different countries whereby individuals born
in or holding the nationality of a certain country move to another country.


A refugee is a person who meets the eligibility criteria under the applicable refugee definition, as provided for in international or regional refugee instruments, under the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees’ mandate, and/or in national legislation. The most important definitions of a refugee contained in international documents are:

Statute of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (Art. 6.A (ii) of GA/UN Resolution 428 (V) of 14 December 1950): Any person who, as a result of events occurring before 1 January 1951 and owing to well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable or, owing to such fear or for reasons other than personal convenience, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country; or who, not having a nationality and being outside the country of his former habitual residence, is unable or, owing to such fear or for reasons other than personal convenience, is unwilling to return to it.

1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees Art. 1A (2): As a result of events occurring before 1 January 1951 and owing to well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country; or who, not having a nationality and being outside the country of his former habitual residence as a result of such events, is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to return to it. (Slightly different because the 1951 Convention takes into consideration the membership of a particular social group as one of the 5 grounds).

1967 Protocol relating to the Status of Refugees Art. 1.2: For the purpose of the present Protocol, the term “refugee” shall, except as regards the application of paragraph 3 of this article, mean any person within the definition of Article 1 of the Convention as if the words “As a result of events occurring before 1 January 1951 and” and the words “a result of such events”, in Article 1 A (2) were omitted.

Rescue at sea

Rescue at sea is a situation in which a vessel provides assistance to person or ship in distress at sea. The duty to rescue those in distress at sea is firmly established by both treaty and customary international law. The state responsible for the coordination of the rescue effort will negotiate disembarkation to a place of safety. The state providing assistance can refuse the unloading of the ship and may require that the crew leave its territory. It may also place conditions on the disembarkation that must be met by the flag state, a third state, or an international organisation, such as resettlement, an interview, return, etc. As well as the law of the sea, states and others undertaking rescue operations must be mindful of their obligations under international human rights and refugee law. In particular, rescued asylum-seekers and refugees must not be returned to a place where their lives or freedoms are at risk, and they must be given an opportunity to seek asylum.

Smuggler (of migrants)

A smuggler is an intermediary who moves a person with their agreement, in order to transport him/her in an unauthorized manner across an internationally recognized state border. The smuggler is not necessarily a trafficker as he/she does not necessarily have the intention of exploiting the person.

Smuggling (of migrants)

“The procurement, in order to obtain, directly or indirectly, a financial or other material benefit, of the [irregular] entry of a person into a state party of which the person is not a national or a permanent resident”.

Art. 3(a), United Nations Protocol Against the Smuggling of Migrants by Land, Sea and Air, supplementing the United Nations Convention against Transnational Organized Crime, 2000

Smuggling, contrary to trafficking, does not require an element of exploitation nor coercion, or violation of human rights.

Trafficking in persons

“The recruitment, transportation, transfer, harbouring or receipt of persons, by means of the threat or use of force or other forms of coercion, of abduction, of fraud, of deception, of the abuse of power or of a position of vulnerability or of the giving or receiving of payments or benefits to achieve the consent of a person having control over another person, for the purpose of exploitation”.

United Nations Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children, Supplementing the UN Convention against Transnational Organized Crime, 2000, Art. 3(a) .

Trafficking in persons can take place within the borders of one state or may have a transnational character.