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Explainer: What is the difference between ‘economic migrants’, ‘refugees’ and 'asylum-seekers'?

False claims about asylum seekers often use terms in confusing and contradictory ways

ONGOING CRISES INVOLVING migrants have introduced an obscure lexicon about asylum seekers into political debates in Ireland.

Terms like “human trafficking”, “economic migrants”, “illegal immigration” and “refugee” are sometimes used to specify the legalities of people coming into Ireland.

However, these terms are also frequently misused by anti-immigrant groups to conflate those seeking protection with those who travel to Ireland for job opportunities.

The Journal has increasingly seen such terms used interchangeably online, including in misinformation about refugees, or at protests against new arrivals being housed in certain areas. 

But digging into the meaning behind such terms shows that there are specific distinctions between those entering the country.

The conflation of these terms by anti-immigrant groups can often make them seem the same, and the thrust of arguments by those groups sound more convincing to those who can’t distinguish between them.

The Journal’s FactCheck team regularly comes across nonsense claims online that use these terms: for example, posts that that refugees are economic migrants, or that asylum-seekers in State housing are unvetted and don’t receive background checks.

Some of these claims don’t just incorrectly describe the current situation, but use the terms in ways that can’t possibly be true; economic migrants are, by definition, not refugees.

Other of these claims are misleading; the asylum process is, in part, a vetting process.

Let’s dig into the various terms around migration and asylum-seeking a bit more.


This term applies broadly to all of those who move (or are in the process of moving) from their country of residence to find work or better living conditions. 

The United Nations (UN) uses migrant as “an umbrella term, not defined under international law, reflecting the common lay understanding of a person who moves away from his or her place of usual residence” and can include international students as well as trafficked workers.

It applies regardless of a person’s legal status, why they’re leaving, whether the movement is voluntary, or how long they intend to stay for.

The EU is more specific about how the term is used, but still includes all people who are expected to reside in a foreign country for at least a year.

Like the UN, a person is considered a migrant according to the EU regardless of the reasons why they are in another country, or whether they are there voluntarily or not.

So someone who specifically travels for work is considered a migrant, but so is someone who seeks international protection after fleeing the place where they were born. 


The term refugee has a legal status and consequently means something far more specific.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) describes refugees as “persons outside their countries of origin who are in need of international protection because of feared persecution, or a serious threat to their life, physical integrity or freedom in their country of origin as a result of persecution, armed conflict, violence or serious public disorder”.

This definition lists reasons other than conflicts that require international protection, in contrast to what some anti-immigration activists have implied, for example, that refugees from countries not at war do not have legitimate reasons to seek protection in Ireland.

Some people may seek international protection if they were tortured in their own country, or if they were under threat due to their religion or sexuality.

It should also be noted that the person is considered a refugee regardless of whether the state has recognised their status.

By definition, anyone to whom the term “refugee” applies is considered to have a legitimate reason to flee their country, and has a corresponding right to international protection.

The Irish definition for refugee is slightly different, requiring that a person must be fleeing due to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of: race; religion; nationality; political opinion; or membership of a particular social group.

This is decided upon by the International Protection Office.

Those who do not fit this narrower description can still be granted a Subsidiary Protection Grant, if it is found that they face a “a real risk of suffering serious harm in his or her country of origin”. These people could still be referred to as refugees in normal speech, though there is a legal distinction. 

However, this is rarer, with only 96 such grants given in 2022, compared to 4,066 cases where a refugee status was recognised, according to figures shared by the Department of Justice.

Asylum seeker

The UNHCR defines an asylum seeker as “an individual who is seeking international protection” but where, in countries like Ireland, they have not yet received a final decision on their claim.

In other words, an asylum seeker is someone hoping to be recognised as a refugee.

“Not every asylum seeker will ultimately be recognised as a refugee,” the UNHCR definition continues, “ but every refugee is initially an asylum-seeker”.

Claims that people undergoing the asylum process are in the State illegally appear regularly on social media, but by Irish law, this is not the case.

“Any person who has an application pending with the Immigration Authorities, including the International protection office, would have an entitlement to remain in the State while that application was being assessed,” the Department of Justice said. 

As mentioned above, everyone else must have their assessment decided upon by the International Protection Office. They are considered an asylum seeker while this process is ongoing. 

Economic migrants

Some anti-immigration activists have made claims that refugees or asylum seekers are economic migrants.

However, these claims seem to be based on a misunderstanding of what that term means, or at least of what the Irish system entails.

The term usually refers to people seeking jobs or better living conditions, but who are not refugees, such as Irish people who go to work abroad in places like America or Australia.

“Economic migrants is a slightly more tricky term that is often used by some people in the media and also by people who are against this issue, to say ‘all asylum seekers are actually economic migrants’,” Nick Henderson told The Journal’s podcast The Explainer.

“It carries a lot of negativity, and I’m not sure that’s correct. People move around the world for a better life all the time. Irish people know that better than many others. But in this context, it can be used as a form of, I suppose, a slur or a trope, to say that people aren’t coming here because they need protection, but are economic migrants.” 

The EU definition includes anyone who “leaves their country of origin purely for economic reasons that are not in any way related to the refugee, in order to seek material improvements in their livelihood”.

A refugee is, by this definition, not an economic migrant. And, unless made by someone with proof unavailable to the government, claims that asylum seekers are economic refugees are unfounded until a decision is made on their case. 

Similarly, the Irish Justice Department told The Journal that they consider people who arrive, “having been granted a work permit or a person who may use another immigration avenue to obtain employment in the State” – as being economic migrants. 

Illegal immigrant

The terms “illegal immigrant” and “illegal immigration” have regularly appeared in US debates about asylum seekers and refugees (though the use of the terms can be unclear).

However, they appear less in Irish debates, despite having a much clearer legal definition.

The term here is defined in the Illegal Immigrants (Trafficking) Act, 2000, which refers to “a non-national who enters or seeks to enter or has entered the State unlawfully”.

The act also forbids helping people to enter the State if there is “a reasonable cause to believe” they intend to seek asylum. However, while helping potential asylum-seekers and illegal immigrants are both covered by the same law, they are not conflated in the text of the law.

“There is no visa to claim asylum., so it’s not as if I can go to the Irish embassy somewhere and say, ‘Look, I’m going to come to your country to get a visa,’” Nick Henderson told The Journal.

“Unfortunately, the system means that people often have to travel on a face or on a fake passport, they may have to use the assistance of a smuggler. And therefore, they may not have a visa when they arrive in this country.

“But if they make a protection application, they then have a temporary stage temporary status within the country, where they can legally reside here while their asylum claim or protection application is being considered.”

The Department of Justice told The Journal that they don’t ”use or advocate the term illegal immigrant”.

Significant numbers of people who are refused permission to enter the country do indicate that they will claim asylum, according to a written response by the Minister for Justice to a Parliamentary Question.

A source involved with immigration enforcement told The Journal that illegal immigration in Ireland regularly includes people who are smuggled in containers or in lorries through ferry ports, as well as people who enter under fake documents or who fail to engage or disappear from the asylum process.

People trafficking

The term ‘people trafficking’ is often confused with ‘people smuggling’, and involves similar groups of people, though both mean very different things. 

There is another, much more common term that closely matches the meaning of people trafficking: slavery.

The Irish Department of Foreign Affairs describes people trafficking as a form of slavery and Irish law gives examples of this, such as forced labour and coerced prostitution.

A recent video on Irish social media viewed tens of thousands of times claims that, because immigrants to Ireland are transported into the country, and people who provide accomodation for them make money, it fits the definition of human trafficking. It does not.

While refugees are particularly at risk of being trafficked, citizens and other residents can be victims too. And while legislation does cite transporting victims, this is not necessary for a crime of people trafficking to occur.

People smuggling

Sometimes also known as migrant smuggling, people smuggling involves facilitating a person to make an illegal entry into a country for money.

While frequently unsafe for those being smuggled, in Ireland, people smuggling is considered to be not nearly as serious as people trafficking, which requires an exploited victim.

Nick Henderson joined us on The Explainer this week to delve into this topic, and examine in detail how the system works – listen below or wherever you get your podcasts.

The Explainer / SoundCloud