Migrant vs. refugee: What's the difference?

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  • Refugees are forced to flee their home countries because of armed conflict or persecution
  • Migrants are people who choose to resettle to another country in search of a better life

(CNN)The difference between a migrant and a refugee marks a crucial distinction for European countries receiving new arrivals.

Refugees, as defined under the 1951 Refugee Convention, are entitled to basic rights under international law, including the right not to be immediately deported and sent back into harm's way.
"The practice of granting asylum to people fleeing persecution in foreign lands is one of the earliest hallmarks of civilization," according to the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees. "References to it have been found in texts written 3,500 years ago, during the blossoming of the great early empires in the Middle East such as the Hittites, Babylonians, Assyrians and ancient Egyptians."
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    A refugee is someone who has been forced to flee his or her home country because of armed conflict or persecution. Syrians are a prime example.
    The U.N.'s definition of refugee is someone who, "owing to a 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 to, or owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country."
    Migrants, however, are processed under the receiving country's immigration laws. So, ultimately, these terms have major implications for those seeking asylum and the countries being asked to grant it.
    A migrant is someone who chooses to resettle to another country in search of a better life.
    For example, those fleeing poverty in Nigeria, looking for work in Europe, would not have refugee status and would be considered migrants.
    Not all migrants then are refugees, but refugees can fall under the migrant umbrella. One of the major differences between the two designations is that while migrants may seek to escape harsh conditions of their own, refugees could face imprisonment, deprivation of basic rights, physical injury or worse.
    "Refugees have to move if they are to save their lives or preserve their freedom. They have no protection from their own state -- indeed it is often their own government that is threatening to persecute them. If other countries do not let them in and do not help them once they are in, then they may be condemning them to death -- or to an intolerable life in the shadows, without sustenance and without rights," the U.N. says.
    So which term should you use?
    The United Nations notes that both groups are present in Europe and at its shores. It's safe to call all of them migrants because each is migrating, but many of them -- especially those fleeing Afghanistan, Eritrea, Syria and Iraq -- are also refugees.