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Glossary of the most important terms

In the discussion on the subject of refuge and migration, it is important to clarify seemingly self-evident terms and to use them correctly in order to avoid misunderstandings.
Migrants leave their homelands to live and work elsewhere, either temporarily or forever. Reasons for migration can be very different - and more or less voluntary.
A refugee is a person who is forced by other people or circumstances to leave his home.

  • Refugees in a legal sense and according to the Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, also known as the 1951 Refugee Convention are persons who are persecuted for “reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion”. If persons flee within their own country and do not cross an internationally recognised border, they are termed internally displaced persons.
  • Refugees in a broader sense are people who have been driven from their homes by war or natural disasters. Refugees, in this broader sense of the word, are also forced to leave their homes - they have no choice.


It is not always possible to distinguish clearly and unambiguously between "voluntary" migration and "forced" migration. Sometimes people are referred to as "economic refugees" to question their right to assistance. In many cases, however, the economic problems are so great (malnutrition, lack of health care etc.) that they threaten people's health and lives and may force them to leave their homes.

If you are looking for more and more precise definitions, the European Migration Network’s interactive glossary may be helpful and is available in several languages.
Since there are also important national-specific definitions and regulations, you can ask your national CHANGE partner for information.

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