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Who We Serve: The Lingo

There’s a lot of talk about refugees these days, and there’s a lot of questions about who they are, where they come from, and why they’re coming to the United States. At BRL, we work with migrants and refugees every day and want to share with you more about what’s going on in our learners’ lives and home countries. Read on to learn more about the vocabulary used to discuss refugee and migrant situations in this post.

If you turn on any news channel right now, chances are you’ll hear the word “refugee” or “migrant,” often coupled with the word “crisis.” It’s no wonder why--there are around sixty million refugee and internally displaced people in the world right now, according to the UNHCR, which is the highest number since just after WWII. But what do all of those terms mean, and what does it mean for the U.S.? Let’s break them down.

Migrant: A migrant is defined as any person who--you guessed it--migrates. Chances are, you or someone you know has been a migrant; think of your friends who study abroad or teach English in another country for a year or two. This is a very broad term, which is why it’s often used in news reports to cover all the people who are going to and from various countries. From migrant come the terms “immigrant,” meaning a person who is coming to a country, and “emigrant,” meaning someone who is leaving a country.

Refugee: Much more specific than migrant, a refugee is a person who has left and cannot return to their home country due to persecution or reasonable fear of persecution. This fear is based on race, religion, ethnicity, membership in a group, or political opinion. Not just anyone can claim refugee status--basically, the government has a list of countries it says are of special humanitarian concern, and they choose from that list. Additionally, refugees are selected from outside of the U.S., so a person can’t hop off the plane at Roanoke-Blacksburg Regional Airport and claim refugee status. Refugees are subject to an intense vetting process by the United States, often taking up to two years to screen, interview, approve, and resettle refugees to the U.S. Read more about what defines a refugee and the process here.

Asylum-seekers: Asylum-seekers, not unlike refugees, are people who have been persecuted or fear persecution in their country of origin. The important distinction, though, between asylum-seekers and refugees are that asylum-seekers can be granted asylum from inside of the United States or at a port of entry, and one does not need to have any particular legal status to claim asylum, which is a legal protection that allows asylees to stay in the United States. Some immigrants, many of whom come from areas devastated by violence, claim asylum as a way to stay in the United States and must go to court to prove their case. Read more about asylees and claiming asylum here.

Internally Displaced Person: An internally displaced person (IDP) is sort of like an internal refugee--an IDP is someone who too is fleeing persecution and violence, but remain in his or her country of origin. Think: an IDP is someone who flees Roanoke for Richmond or Harrisonburg, while a refugee flees to North Carolina or Maryland (imagining that the U.S. is 50 countries, of course).

Stateless Person: A stateless person is an individual who has been denied a nationality. This is something far-fetched to Americans, since we receive our nationality at birth and probably don’t even think about how we acquired it after that. Stateless people can be born into statelessness, or they can become stateless due to border changes, discrimination by a government, or loopholes in nationality laws. For example, some countries only give nationality if a child’s parents are from that country. If a child is abandoned, he may be denied nationality in that country. Statelessness is much more than a lack of passport--many stateless people cannot get jobs, educations, bank accounts, and even medical care. Currently, there are 10 million stateless people in the world. Learn more about statelessness here.

Refugee Camp: A refugee camp is a temporary settlement created to shelter people taking refuge in another country. This isn’t your summer sleep-away camp--refugee camps are often overcrowded, with makeshift homes and few utilities to go around. Resources are typically provided by the host country’s government, international organizations, and NGOs. Refugee camps are often found in countries right next to the chaos, like camps in Turkey filled with people from Syria, which is why you don’t see any in the United States. The largest refugee camp in the world is Dadaab in Kenya, with over 350,000 residents.

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