Who are the people we are talking about?

When talking about refugees and asylum seekers, and other categories of displaced persons there are a variety of definitions that apply to different people depending on their circumstances. The following describes some commonly used terms when referring to people who are experiencing displacement.


In Australian law, section 5H of the Migration Act 1958 (Cth) defines a refugee as a person who is outside their country of nationality and due to a well founded fear of persecution cannot rely on that country’s protection or a person who does not have a nationality and has left their former country of residence and due to a well founded fear of persecution cannot return there.

However, this definition does not include persons who have committed certain crimes before entering Australia or persons guilty of acts contrary to the principles of the United Nations Section 5J of the Migration Act 1958 more extensively defines a “well-founded fear of persecution”.

This definition is very similar to the international law definition of refugee as found in  Article 1(2) of the Convention and Protocol relating to the Status of Refugees (Refugee Convention).

There are concerns that the definition of refugee is too narrow and this has led to more extended legal definitions of refugee being proposed.

Asylum Seeker

In Australia, an asylum seeker is a person who has fled their own country and applied for protection as a refugee. (Australian Human Rights Commission) but their claim for refugee status has not yet been approved (Refugee Council of Australia).

However, under international law, a person is a ‘refugee’ as soon as they meet the definition of refugee, whether or not their claim has been assessed. If they are found to be refugees, then they are ‘recognised refugees’.”

Protracted Refugees

Protracted refugees are people who have been refugees for five years or more.

Complementary Protection

If a person does not meet the definition of ‘refugee’, that person may still be eligible for “complementary protection” To be granted complementary protection a person must show that if he or she were returned to their home country, there is a real risk that the person will suffer significant harm: Refugee Council of Australia Factsheet


A migrant is a person who chooses to leave their country of birth or nationality to seek a better life elsewhere, sometimes due to less than ideal circumstances but not because of persecution.

Internally displaced people

Internally displaced people (IDP) have not crossed an international border but are fleeing danger within their own country. While their government should protect them, the government is often the cause of their displacement making them extremely vulnerable.

Stateless Persons

A stateless person does not have a nationality of any country, either because they were born stateless or because of a change in their citizenship status.

Displaced Person

The displacement of people refers to the forced movement of people from their locality or environment and occupational activities. It is a form of social change caused by a number of factors, the most common being armed conflict. Natural disasters, famine, development and economic changes may also be a cause of displacement.

Forcibly displaced people

Forcibly displaced people are forced, often with threats of or physical violence, to move from their homes whether internally or internationally.

How are people seeking asylum different from people who are smuggled?

Article three of the Smuggling of Migrants Protocol supplementing the United Nations Convention against Transnational Organized Crime defines the smuggling of people as the “procurement, in order to obtain, directly or indirectly, a financial or other material benefit, of the illegal  entry of a person into a State Party of which the person is not a national or a permanent resident.”

How are people seeking asylum different from people who are trafficked?

The UN Office on Drugs and Crime definiton is Article 3, paragraph (a) of the Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons defines Trafficking in Persons as 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.

For more information on human trafficking, see our page on human slavery and trafficking.