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Are They Migrants or Refugees?


A paramilitary police officer carries the lifeless body of a migrant boy near the Turkish resort of Bodrum early Wednesday, Sept. 2, 2015. (AP Photo/DHA)

A paramilitary police officer carries the lifeless body of a migrant boy near the Turkish resort of Bodrum early Wednesday, Sept. 2, 2015. (AP Photo/DHA)

Young and old, they walk along the highway, weary and struggling. Others lay down on the train tracks in Hungary. A small lifeless body of a boy washes up at a beach resort in Turkey. Seventy-one bodies found abandoned in a truck by the side of the road in Austria.

They were all fleeing their war-torn countries, hoping to find a better, safer life in Europe, maybe in Germany or Austria. Many traveled in small boats to reach European shores.

Now, the European Union continues to struggle over how to handle the wave of people moving toward their borders.

Joost Hiltermann is with the International Crisis Group, in Brussels, Belgium.

“Clearly, the European Union is in a total panic. And, partly because of refugees landing on its shores, which it prefers to call ‘migrants.’ And, secondly, because the European Union is internally, terribly, terribly divided, with some countries taking certain steps, and others trying other steps. So, there is no coordination, and therefore, no effective response to the crisis.”

Year-to-date number of migrant arrivals, deaths at sea as of September 1, 2015

Year-to-date number of migrant arrivals, deaths at sea as of September 1, 2015

On Friday, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, the UNHCR, called on the European Union to admit up to 200,000 refugees.

Commissioner Antonio Guterres asked the European Union, the EU, to start a “mass relocation program” to help the flood of migrants looking for shelter in Europe. He said a divided EU only helps smugglers and traffickers.

Migrants, who have been picked up within Austria near the border with Hungary, wait at a makeshift camp in Nickelsdorf, Austria, Aug. 29, 2015.

Migrants, who have been picked up within Austria near the border with Hungary, wait at a makeshift camp in Nickelsdorf, Austria, Aug. 29, 2015.

Some of these people seeking shelter are called “migrants.” Some are called “refugees.” These words are used over and over in news stories about people fleeing their countries. They are seeking a better, safer life in Europe.

Are they “migrants,” or “refugees”? Does it matter?

The UNHCR, says yes, it matters.

Migrants or refugees?

Refugees are “persons fleeing armed conflict or persecution,” said Adrian Edwards, chief spokesperson for UNHCR.

Their situation is “so perilous and intolerable that they cross national borders to seek safety in nearby countries.”

The UN organization says there were 19.5 million refugees worldwide at the end of 2014.

Refugees are protected by international law. Mr. Edwards said there is a fundamental principle of international law. Refugees “should not be expelled or returned to situations where their life and freedom would be under threat.”

“We say ‘refugees’ when we mean people fleeing war or persecution across an international border,” Mr. Edwards explained. “And we say ‘migrant’ when we mean people moving for reasons not included in the legal definition of a refugee.”

How are migrants defined?

UNHCR’s Mr. Edwards said migrants do not face safety problems when they return home. Refugees do. Migrants choose to move to improve their lives by finding better work, education or to join family members.

Are the people coming to Greece, Turkey and other coastal countries, refugees or migrants?

They are both, said Mr. Edwards. But most are refugees, he said. Only a smaller number of people going to Europe are migrants.

Stephen Ryan is with the International Red Cross in Budapest, Hungary. Refugees and migrants are passing through Budapest to get to Germany and Austria. But recently, Hungary stopped allowing refugees and migrants to leave.

A man shouts during a protest at the Keleti train station in Budapest, Sept. 4, 2015.

A man shouts during a protest at the Keleti train station in Budapest, Sept. 4, 2015.

In the Hungarian city of Bicske, hundreds of refugees refused to leave their train they boarded in Budapest. They hoped to go to Germany, which has said it will take up to 800,000 refugee applications. Mr. Ryan called the situation in Budapest, “distressing.”

“There are families and individuals – people from countries such as Afghanistan, Iraq or Syria — that simply want to find safety and security for their families in countries where they can see a future. The situations in these train stations is extremely difficult.”

Mr. Ryan says there is a lack of sanitation and not enough food available.

Why are these refugees risking their lives and money to travel this way?

Migrants struggle to board a train at the railway station in Budapest, Hungary, Thursday, Sept. 3, 2015.

Migrants struggle to board a train at the railway station in Budapest, Hungary, Thursday, Sept. 3, 2015.

The people fleeing war-torn countries cannot go to an airport, or get a visa to travel. They often must leave illegally on foot at night even if they can afford to pay for a plane or train ticket.

In Britain, Prime Minister David Cameron said Friday that they will accept “thousands more” refugees from Syria. It has already accepted 5,000.

The U.S. is processing the applications of Syrian refugees more quickly, said State Department Spokesman Mark Toner on Thursday. He said officials were “shocked” by the “graphic and heartbreaking images” coming from the crisis.

“There are a lot of terrorist groups operating in that region, in that part of the world, and we need to make sure that, fundamentally that we protect the national security of the United States.”

Migrants or refugees in Asia

The Middle East and Europe are not the only places dealing with refugees. In Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, a group of people known as Rohingya, are risking their lives trying to flee that country.

Rohingya boat people off the coast of Indonesia

Rohingya boat people off the coast of Indonesia

They are an ethnic group of Muslims in the Buddhist nation. Many countries have turned them away, except for Bangladesh, a majority Muslim nation. But recently they were ordered to leave the border camps.

In 1975, after the fall of Saigon, many South Vietnamese citizens fled the country in rickety boats. They were refugees leaving political turmoil and danger. Years later, Vietnamese who left the country were considered migrants because they sought better opportunities.

As for the current refugee crisis in Europe, the EU, made up of 28 nations, is set to hold an emergency meeting September 14.

I’m Anne Ball.

Anne Ball wrote this story for Learning English. Kathleen Struck was the editor.

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Words in This Story

beach resort- n. seaside place where people vacation

weary—adj. very tired

smuggler (s) –n. someone who moves someone or something illegally or secretly

perilous - adj. dangerous

intolerable –adj. too bad or severe to be accepted

fundamental –adj. relating to the most important part of something

boarded – v. get on (a train or plane)

distressing – adj. very upsetting

sanitation –n. keeping something clean by removing waste, trash and garbage

rickety –adj. not strong or stable, likely to break

turmoil –n. state of confusion, not in order

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