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Asylum seekers, refugees & more: definitions

What’s the difference? Definitions for asylum seeker, refugee, migrant, internally displaced person, stateless person and other relevant terms

Submitted 11/10/2005 By Bridie Views 351592 Comments 6 Updated 9/4/2008

Photographer : Joseph Wenkoff


In a political context, asylum is when a government grants somebody refugee status and immunity from extradition.

Asylum Seeker

The terms refugee and asylum seeker are often used interchangeably because most refugees are at some point asylum seekers. An asylum seeker is someone who makes a claim for asylum in a country other than their own. Under Australian Law, the rights of asylum seekers are more restricted than the rights of refugees in relation to movement (where they can travel to), employment, health care and social security. People move from asylum seeker status to refugee status once the country they have applied for asylum in accepts their claim.


The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) defines citizenship, or nationality (both terms are used interchangeably), as:
"a legal bond between a state and that country’s laws and an individual. It encompasses political, economic, social and other rights as well as the responsibilities of both government and citizen."

Citizenship in Australia

The Australian Citizenship Act 1948 defines Australian Citizenship as representing:

"formal membership of the community of the Commonwealth of Australia; and Australian citizenship is a common bond, involving reciprocal rights and obligations, uniting all Australians, while respecting their diversity; and persons granted Australian citizenship enjoy these rights and undertake to accept these obligations by pledging loyalty to Australia and its people, and by sharing their democratic beliefs, and by respecting their rights and liberties, and by upholding and obeying the laws of Australia."

Economic Migrant

The term economic migrant is often confused with the term refugee, but it is simply a label for a migrant moving with the aim of bettering their economic status.

Illegal Immigrant

An illegal immigrant is someone who has moved from one state to another without any legal claim, such as a visa or a claim for asylum. Asylum seekers are not illegal immigrants. They are applying for asylum, which means they are complying with Australian law.

Immigration Detention Centre (IDC)

IDCs are facilities in which people are housed or detained. The majority of people housed or detained in IDCs in Australia are those who have breached their visa conditions, often by overstaying their visa, and those who have been apprehended without any visa or the correct type of visa at an international airport in Australia.

Immigration Detention Facility (IDF)

IDFs are facilities in which people are housed or detained. They house and detain the same kinds of people held in IDCs and IRPCs.

Immigration Reception and Processing Centre (IRPC)

IRPCs are facilities in which people are housed or detained. In Australia, IRPCs are primarily used to house/detain people who have arrived by boat and do not have pre-approved entry from the government.

Internally Displaced People (IDPs)

IDPs leave their homes for similar reasons as refugees (see below), but for whatever reason, they remain in their own state and are therefore still subject to that state’s rule. They are not afforded human rights protection by their own government.


Unlike refugees, migrants do not fear persecution from their home state. Instead, they make a conscious decision to move and have the freedom to return to their state of origin if they wish. Should a migrant choose this option, they have no fear of persecution on their return.


These terms refer to those people who have been pre-approved by a government and given assistance (offshore) before going to a new state, and those who are apply for refugee protection once in a new state (onshore).


Generally, persecution refers to harassment or punishment based on a person’s race, religion, gender, sexual orientation, nationality, political opinion, membership of a particular social group, or beliefs. However, in the context of refugee status there is little agreement on what constitutes persecution. That being said, a threat to life or other serious human rights violations are generally regarded as persecution. Governments are given the freedom to classify lesser threats or discrimination as insufficient for qualifying for refugee status.

Queue Jumper

In an Australian context, the Department of Immigration sets an amount of new immigrants allowed into Australia each year. The amount is made up of both an offshore and onshore component (see above). The Australian Government has said that for every person who arrives in Australia above the allocated number for onshore people, they will deduct one person from the offshore component. Thus, people who claim asylum once they are in Australia are seen as 'jumping the queue' of those in the offshore component. For various reasons, people who claim asylum once in Australia often do not have the opportunity to apply offshore. Often the country they are coming from does not support the program, or they face persecution over their reasons for applying. Applying for asylum once in Australia is not illegal, it is in line with UN protocol.


The 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees defines a refugee as 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..."

What this means is a refugee is someone who is outside their home country because they believe they could be punished or harassed for the reasons listed above and cannot be protected by their government.

Residential Housing Project

These are flexible housing systems in which people are housed or detained. They are a special provision made for women and children and allow for a family-style living situtation whilst still remaining in immigration detention.


A State is not just an area within a country, like New South Wales or Queensland. It is also any politically organised federation of people, under one government, usually residing in a specified land or territory. Countries and nations are classified states.

Stateless Person

A stateless person is someone who does not belong as a citizen to any state. Whilst a stateless person may also be a refugee, this is not always the case. For example, a person may leave their home state without persecution. Some people are also born into statelessness due to their parents either being stateless themselves, or unable to register the birth of their child.

How do I know this?

Australian Citizenship Act 1948,


Discuss Now

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RSS Comments

andypugwash 27-Jan-2011

WOW, I have only recently taken an interest in this, as it is in the media and all and find it hard to believe that australia keeps families locked up in these prisons, I am amazed that we still do this sort of stuff, I wonder if we will all look back and say just have backward and barbaric our generation was.
Not happy, I saw pictures of Villawood, what a jail, scary and dangerous.



lmanalili 25-Nov-2009

At the moment there are many people that want to get into Australia and other rich countries. I believe that everyon should have a chance at coming here and being able to come and live here. But even though they are from countries that are over-populated and affected by war thy should at least try to register normally like everybody else



ErinSA 26-Aug-2007

At the moment, climate refugees (those made refugees by forces of climate change, such as rising sea levels) are not included in international refugee definitions and (needless to say) are certainly not protected by Australia's refugee legislation.

In SA I'm working on the Adopt A Politician campaign - aiming to get our politicians climate friendly - this includes getting our refugee legislation expanded to include climate refugees.

If you want to get involved, email me at

And check out our national website -




Kev - Lives - Here 31-Aug-2006

The International Thesaurus of Refugee Terminology

Wordy, but useful.



Liv 08-Aug-2006

this is a very good description of the different terminology used in the media. When i asked my friends, they all thought they were one thing. it is great that someone has decided to combine all these definitions and put it all together. thanks heaps!