When people flee their homes and seek aid, they can be assigned to one of eight classifications, each of which conveys unique legal rights or restrictions. For instance, some are entitled under international law to receive humanitarian aid, shelter and protection because they have a “well-founded fear” of persecution if they return home. Here are the key definitions under international law and commonly accepted practice of the various categories of people who are seeking, or in need of, assistance:
Asylum-seeker: A person who has applied (either individually or as part of a group) for legal refugee status under national and international laws. If refugee status is denied, the asylum-seeker must leave the country (and could face expulsion) unless he or she is given permission to stay on humanitarian grounds.
Internally displaced person (IDP): Someone who has been forced to flee his home due to armed conflict, generalized violence, human-rights violations or natural or man-made disasters but has not crossed an international border.
Migrants: In the absence of a universally accepted definition of a migrant, the International Organization on Migration says the term is “usually understood” to cover all cases in which “the decision to migrate is taken freely by the individual concerned for reasons of 'personal convenience' and without intervention of an external compelling factor. An “economic migrant” is someone who leaves his home country in search of better economic opportunities elsewhere.
Persons in “IDP-like” situations: This relatively new term developed by the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) describes “groups of persons who are inside their country of nationality or habitual residence and who face protection risks similar to those of IDPs, but who, for practical or other reasons, could not be reported as such.” For example, the UNHCR has used the term to describe displaced people in Georgia (including former residents of the breakaway provinces of Abkhazia and South Ossetia) and Russia.
Persons in “refugee-like” situations: Another relatively recent term used by the UNHCR to describe people who are outside their country or territory of origin “who face protection risks similar to those of refugees, but for whom refugee status has, for practical or other reasons, not been ascertained.” In many cases, these are refugees who have settled more or less permanently in another country on an informal basis. The largest single population in this group is the estimated 1.1 million Afghans living outside formal refugee camps in Pakistan.
Refugee: Under the 1951 Refugee Convention (as amended in 1967), a refugee is someone who, due to a “well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinions,” has left his home country and is unable or, owing to fear, “unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country.” A person becomes a refugee by meeting the standards of the Refugee Convention, even before being granted asylum (see above), which legally confirms his or her refugee status.
Returnee: A refugee or IDP who has returned to his home — or home country or region.
Stateless person: Anyone who is not recognized as a citizen of any country. Stateless persons lack national or international legal protections and cannot legally cross international borders because they don't have and cannot obtain a valid passport or other identity papers. Between 3 million and 12 million people worldwide are stateless; the wide range results from a lack of information in some countries and conflicting assessments about which groups actually are stateless.
Sources: “Glossary on Migration,” International Migration Law, International Organization for Migration, Geneva, Switzerland, www.iom.int/jahia/webdav/site/myjahiasite/shared/shared/mainsite/published_docs/serial_publications/Glossary_eng.pdf; and “Glossary,” U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, Geneva, Switzerland, www.unhcr.org/publ/PUBL/4922d4390.pdf