This glossary has been produced by the IRC to assist migration policymakers, members of the media,  students and other relevant audiences with understanding complex terminology in the migration and asylum sector.

Words listed in bold are other terms defined in this glossary.


The grant, by a state, of international protection on its territory to persons outside their country of nationality or habitual residence, who are fleeing persecution or serious harm or for other reasons.

Typically, a grant of asylum confers refugee status.

Article 14 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights guarantees all persons the right to seek and enjoy asylum in other countries from persecution and is the foundation for the Refugee Convention.

Asylum seeker

Generally, an individual who is seeking international protection.

In some countries, it is a legal term that refers to a person who has formally applied for refugee status or a complementary international protection status and has not yet received a final decision.

Not all asylum seekers will be granted international protection, but every refugee was originally an asylum seeker.

Read more in our explainer article.

Burden sharing

A term derived from the Preamble to the Refugee Convention, and commonly also referred to as responsibility sharing, which considers that the grant of asylum may place unduly heavy burden on certain countries, and that a satisfactory solution of a problem of which the United Nations has recognised the international scope and nature cannot therefore be achieved without international cooperation.

Climate migration

The International Organization for Migration - noting that this is a working definition for analytic and advocacy purposes with no specific legal definition - states that climate migration is the movement of a person or groups of persons who, predominantly for reasons of sudden or progressive change in the environment due to climate change, are obliged to leave their habitual place of residence, or choose to do so, either temporarily or permanently, within a state or across an international border.


Citizenship is an individual’s membership to a sovereign state that guarantees a set of civil and political rights. Each country determines its own criteria for citizenship. See nationality.  

Complementary protection

Mechanisms used by states to regularise the stay of persons found to fall outside the scope of the Refugee Convention, but who are nevertheless in need of international protection.

Complementary pathways

Safe and regulated avenues by which refugees may be admitted and stay in a country, and have their international protection needs met while they are also able to support themselves to potentially reach a sustainable and lasting solution.

Complementary pathways are not meant to substitute the protection afforded to refugees under the international protection regime, nor existing resettlement schemes - they complement it and serve as an important expression of global solidarity, international cooperation and more equitable responsibility sharing. These may include family reunification, scholarship, education, and private or community sponsorship programmes, as well as labour mobility schemes.

Country of origin

The country or countries of nationality or, for stateless persons, of former habitual residence.


The regulation of migration is generally a civil or administrative law matter.

Criminalisation refers to efforts to manage migration through the criminal legal system, including by imposing criminal penalties on irregular migration, delegating migration management functions to criminal law enforcement agencies, or by subjecting non-citizens to punitive measures such as immigration detention and electronic monitoring.

Displacement or forced displacement

The UN Refugee Agency defines displacement as the movement of persons who have been forced or obliged to flee or to leave their homes or places of habitual residence (whether within their country or across an international border), in particular as a result of or in order to avoid the effects of armed conflict, situations of generalised violence, violations of human rights, or natural or human-made disasters.

Durable solution

In the refugee context, durable solutions are the means by which the situation of refugees can be satisfactorily and permanently resolved through ensuring national protection for their civil cultural, economic, political and social rights.

The three durable solutions in the refugee context are voluntary repatriation, local integration, or resettlement.  

In the context of internally displaced persons, durable solutions are achieved when individuals no longer have specific assistance or protection needs linked to their displacement.  

For stateless persons, durable solutions are linked to the provision or recognition of nationality.

First country of asylum

The term country of first asylum (or just “country of asylum”) is often used descriptively in global resettlement parlance to refer to the first country in which an asylum seeker or refugee finds protection.

More broadly, first country of asylum refers to a procedure wherein a state determines that an asylum seeker should be denied access to its refugee status determination procedures (asylum procedures) on the basis that they have already found protection in another country, can return there, and can avail themself of such protection, including benefiting from the principle of non-refoulement. Some countries, (e.g., the US) refer to this as “firm resettlement.”

Under international refugee law, a state must make an individualised assessment, with adequate due process protections, as to whether an asylum seeker will be readmitted and can enjoy protection in a first country of asylum, including, but not limited to, protection from refoulement

Human rights-based approach [to migration]

A conceptual framework based on international human rights standards and operationally directed to promoting and protecting human rights.


From the perspective of the country of arrival, a person who moves into a country other than that of their nationality or usual residence, so that the country of destination effectively becomes their new country of usual residence.

Immigration detention

Immigration detention is the deprivation of personal liberty for migration-related reasons.

Note that immigrant detention differs from criminal incarceration, which is the deprivation of liberty due to criminal charges or conviction.

Internal relocation (or internal flight alternative)

A concept invoked by some countries' national laws asserting that, where a well-founded fear of persecution based on a protected ground (see refugee definition) has been established in one part of the country of origin, there may be a specific area of the country where there is no such risk and where, given particular circumstances of a case, an applicant for international protection could reasonably be expected to establish themselves.

The 1951 Convention does not require assessment of internal relocation possibilities and the OAU Convention (see below, refugee definition) explicitly clarifies that a refugee need not first exhaust all alternatives within their country of origin.

Internally displaced person (IDP)

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 generalised violence, violations of human rights or natural or human-made disasters, and who have not crossed an internationally-recognised national border.

Read more in our explainer article.

International migration

The movement of persons away from their place of usual residence and across an international border to a country of which they are not nationals.

For statistical purposes, the UN DESA definition excludes movements due to recreation, holiday, visits to friends and relatives, business, medical treatment, or religious pilgrimages.

International protection

Protection that is accorded by the international community to individuals or groups who are outside their own country and are unable to return because they would be at risk there, and whose own country is unable or unwilling to protect them.

Risks that give rise to a need for international protection include those of persecution or other threats to life, freedom, or physical integrity.    

The international community provides international protection through states, notably via asylum systems, and through international organisations in accordance with their mandates to individuals and groups.    

International protection includes refugee status as well as subsidiary protections and complementary protections.

In the European Union, for example, international protection is defined as refugee status and subsidiary protection status.

The concept of international protection is closely associated with refugee protection and asylum. It is distinct from the broader concept of protection which applies to all humanitarian action including outside refugee contexts.

Irregular migration

Movement of persons that takes place outside the laws, regulations, or international agreements governing the entry into or exit from the state of origin, transit or destination.


An umbrella term, not defined under international law, reflecting the common understanding of a person who moves away from their place of usual residence, whether within a country or across international borders, temporarily or permanently, and for a variety of reasons.

Migrant worker

A person who is to be engaged, is engaged or has been engaged in a remunerated activity in a state of which he or she is not a national.


The movement of persons away from their place of usual residence, either across an international border or within a country.

Mixed migration

According to the Mixed Migration Centre, the term mixed migration refers to cross-border movements of people, including refugees fleeing persecution and conflict, victims of trafficking, and people seeking better lives and opportunities.

Motivated to move by a multiplicity of factors, people in mixed flows have different legal statuses that change along the way as well as a variety of vulnerabilities.

Although entitled to protection under international human rights law, they are exposed to multiple rights violations along their journey.


Means the legal bond between a person and a state and does not indicate the person's ethnic origin.

Under the European Convention, the terms nationality and citizenship are synonymous.

However, in some countries such as the United States, citizenship is a legal status that grants greater rights, meaning that all citizens are nationals, but some nationals are not citizens.


Under international human rights law, the principle of non-refoulement guarantees that no one should be returned to a country where they would face torture, cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment and other irreparable harm.

This principle applies to all migrants at all times, irrespective of migration status.

Prima facie refugee

During large movements of refugees, it is not always necessary or possible to conduct individual asylum interviews with every asylum seeker who crosses a border.

In such circumstances, these individuals may be called “prima facie refugees” and granted refugee status as a group by the government of the country receiving them.


The concept of protection encompasses all activities aimed at obtaining full respect for the rights of the individual in accordance with the letter and spirit of relevant bodies of law, including international human rights law, international humanitarian law, and international refugee law.


A refugee is an individual outside their country of nationality or last habitual residence who has a well-founded fear of persecution for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group or political opinion, and is unable or unwilling as a result of such fear to avail themselves of the protection of that country.

The 1967 Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees removed certain geographic and temporal limitations regarding the definition of a refugee.  

Some regions and countries have adopted more expansive definitions. For example:

  • The 1969 Organization of African Unity Convention Governing the Specific Aspects of Refugee Problems in Africa expands the definition of a refugee to apply to every person who, owing to external aggression, occupation, foreign domination or events seriously disturbing public order in either part or the whole of their country of origin or nationality, is compelled to leave their place of last habitual residence to seek refuge elsewhere.
  • The Cartagena Declaration on Refugees, adopted in 1984 by the Colloquium on the International Protection of Refugees in Central America, Mexico and Panama, in addition to the elements contained in the Refugee Convention definition, includes among refugees persons who have fled their country because their lives, safety or freedom have been threatened by generalised violence, foreign aggression, internal conflicts, massive violation of human rights or other circumstances which have seriously disturbed public order.  

Read more in our explainer article.


Also referred to as deportation or forced return, an action following an administrative or judicial order by which a state physically returns a non-national from its territory to their country of origin or a third country after refusal of entry or termination of permission to remain.

For example, in the European Union removal means the enforcement of the obligation to return, namely the physical transportation out of the Member State.


Resettlement involves the selection and transfer of refugees from a country in which they have sought protection to a third country that has agreed to admit them - as refugees - with permanent residence status.

The status provided ensures protection against refoulement and provides a resettled refugee and their family or dependents with access to rights similar to those enjoyed by nationals.

Resettlement also carries with it the opportunity to eventually become a naturalised citizen of the resettlement country.    

Thus, resettlement carries three important functions:

  1. It is a tool to provide international protection and meet the specific needs of refugees who are at risk in their country of asylum;
  2. It is a durable solution alongside voluntary repatriation and local integration; and
  3. It is an expression of international solidarity and responsibility sharing (see burden sharing).

Read more:

What is resettlement?

7 things to know about resettlement into the EU

Responsibility sharing

See burden sharing.


IOM defines return as a general term, meaning the act or process of going back or being taken back to the point of departure, whether within a country (in the context of internally displaced persons) or between countries.

In the European Union, return is the process of a third-country national going back - whether in voluntary compliance with an obligation to return, or enforced - to their country of origin, a country of transit, or another third country to which the individual concerned voluntarily decides to return and where they will be accepted.

Safe country of origin

A concept applied in refugee status determination procedures (asylum procedures) whereby an asylum seeker’s application may be determined under accelerated procedures on the basis that they come from a safe country of origin, and the resulting presumption that their claim is likely to be unfounded.  

The EU defines a safe country of origin as a country where, “on the basis of the legal situation, the application of the law within a democratic system and the general political circumstances, it can be shown that there is generally and consistently no persecution as defined in the EU Qualifications Directive, no torture or inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment and no threat by reason of indiscriminate violence in situations of international or internal armed conflict.”

Safe third country

A concept used in asylum procedures to transfer responsibility for the examination of an asylum request from the host country to another country where the applicant had found, could have found, or, pursuant to a formal (bilateral) agreement, can find international protection.    

The EU defines a safe third country as a third country that treats a person seeking international protection in accordance with key principles: life and liberty are not threatened on account of a protected ground, there is no risk of serious harm, the principle of non-refoulement is respected, and the possibility exists to request refugee status and, if found to be a refugee, to receive protection in accordance with the 1951 Convention and 1967 Protocol.

Separated children

Children, as defined in article 1 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child as people under the age of 18, who are outside their country of origin and have been separated from both parents, or from their previous legal or customary primary caregiver, but not necessarily from other relatives.

These may, therefore, include children accompanied by other adult family members.

Smuggling of persons

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


Refers to when a person is not considered as a national by any state under operation of its law. 

Subsidiary protection

A form of international protection granted in some countries to persons found not to meet the Refugee Convention definition of a refugee but who face a real risk of serious harm in their country of origin or country of former habitual residence.    

For example, the EU defines a ‘person eligible for subsidiary protection’ as a third country national or a stateless person who does not qualify as a refugee but in respect of whom substantial grounds have been shown for believing that the person concerned, if returned to his or her country of origin, or in the case of a stateless person, to his or her country of former habitual residence, would face a real risk of suffering serious harm, is not subject to exclusions, and is unable, or, owing to such risk, unwilling to avail himself or herself of the protection of that country. 

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.

Exploitation shall include, at a minimum, the exploitation of the prostitution of others or other forms of sexual exploitation, forced [labour] or services, slavery or practices similar to slavery, servitude or the removal of organs.

When the person involved is a child, the act is considered trafficking whether or not the means described above have been used. 

Transit country

A country through which an asylum seeker, refugee, or migrant moves through (regularly or irregularly) during their journey to a country of destination or back to their country of origin.


Any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person for such purposes as obtaining from him or a third person information or a confession, punishing him for an act he or a third person has committed or is suspected of having committed, or intimidating or coercing him or a third person, or for any reason based on discrimination of any kind, when such pain or suffering is inflicted by or at the instigation of or with the consent or acquiescence of a public official or other person acting in an official capacity.

It does not include pain or suffering arising only from, inherent in or incidental to lawful sanctions. 

Unaccompanied children

Also sometimes called ‘unaccompanied minors’ are children, as defined in article 1 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child as people under the age of 18, who are outside their country of origin and have been separated from both parents and other relatives and are not being cared for by an adult who, by law or custom, is responsible for doing so. 


Refers to the present situation, which may be short-term, temporary, or protracted in nature, of an individual who is without immigration status in the country where they reside.

Voluntary departure

Refers to compliance with the obligation to return within a time-limit fixed for that purpose in  a return decision issued by an administrative or judicial body.

Voluntary repatriation

Referenced in the 1950 UNHCR Statute as one of the permanent solutions (see durable solution above) for refugees, UNCHR defines voluntary repatriation as the free and informed return of refugees to their country of origin in safety and dignity.

Voluntary repatriation may be organised (i.e. when it takes place under the auspices of the concerned states and/or UNHCR) or spontaneous (i.e. when refugees repatriate by their own means with little or no direct involvement from government authorities or UNHCR).  

Voluntary return

Defined by IOM as the assisted or independent return to the country of origin, transit or third country, based on the free will of the returnee.

Voluntary return is not defined under EU or international law.

In some countries, such as the US, voluntary return may be effectuated by immigration enforcement authorities at a border.   

IOM further defines assisted voluntary return and reintegration as administrative, logistical, or financial support, including reintegration assistance, to migrants unable or unwilling to remain in the host country or country of transit and who decide to return to their country of origin.

IOM notes that in the context of assisted voluntary return and reintegration, voluntariness is assumed to exist if two conditions apply: (a) freedom of choice, which is defined by the absence of physical or psychological pressure to enroll in an assisted voluntary return and reintegration programme; and (b) an informed decision which requires the availability of timely, unbiased, and reliable information upon which to base the decision.