Refugee, Migrant, IDP: What’s the difference?

Sheren stands in the street outside their tent with her two daughters in Khanke camp. Photo: George Henton
Sheren stands in the street outside their tent with her two daughters in Khanke camp. Photo: George Henton
News28 May 2021

To be torn from the country that you love is not something to wish on anyone.

Malala Yousafzai 

We are living in a time of unprecedented levels of human displacement. Over 80 million people worldwide have been forcibly displaced, according to recent data from UNHCR and this figure has doubled over the last ten years.  Persecution, conflict, generalised violence or human rights violations force millions of men, women and children to flee their homes each year.    

Facts and figures


Around 77% of refugees are displaced for more than five years - that often means no home, no education and no country to call their own.  Displacement is a humanitarian crisis and a development challenge, one that reinforces pre-existing discrimination, inequalities and socioeconomic disadvantages, particularly for women.  

Explaining the crisis

Refugees are mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, children, with the same hopes and ambitions as us—except that a twist of fate has bound their lives to a global refugee crisis on an unprecedented scale.

Khaled Hosseini   

The refugee crisis refers to difficulties and dangerous situations faced by large groups of forcibly displaced persons.  This month, we will open the conversation on the inequalities faced by women and girls living as refugees or IDP’s during Refugee Week 14-20 June.    A complex area, with lots of terminology associated with it, so here we provide more detail on the terms used to describe displacement.   

Definitions at a glance

Facts and stats graphic for refugees, asylum-seekers and IDPS.
Facts and stats graphic for refugees, asylum-seekers and IDPS.


A refugee is someone who is forced to flee their country of origin due to conflict, violence, or oppression. They are unwilling or unable to return based on a demonstrable threat due to their race, religion, political stance, or social status.    

Refugees, therefore, receive a number of protections under international law, the most important being non-refoulment. The principle of non-refoulment forms essential protection under international human rights, refugee, humanitarian and customary law. It prohibits countries from transferring or removing individuals from their jurisdiction when there are substantial grounds for believing that the person would be at risk of irreparable harm upon their return.  The 1951 Refugee Convention also accords other rights including the rights to education, employment, healthcare, and freedom of movement.  


An Asylum-seeker is the classification for someone who is seeking international protection from danger in their country of origin, but whose claim for refugee status hasn’t been finally decided. Every refugee begins as an asylum-seeker, but not every asylum-seeker will be granted refugee status.    

Internally Displaced Person (IDP)

40-year-old widow Tayma* in Cox's Bazar refugee camp, Bangladesh. Photo: Abir Abdullah
40-year-old widow Tayma* in Cox's Bazar refugee camp, Bangladesh. Photo: Abir Abdullah

IDP is the term for someone forced to leave their home but is seeking refuge within their own country and remaining under the protection of their own government.   As a result of conflict, epidemic, or natural disaster they often move to live in very challenging conditions, making them some of the most vulnerable people in the world today.   

IDP’s represent the majority of the refugee population and although many IDPs face the same difficulties as refugees, they aren’t granted the same rights under international law.  

Displaced persons still have rights, including the right to receive humanitarian assistance, protection from physical violence, and freedom of movement, but because of national sovereignty, it is the country in which a person is displaced that is primarily responsible for their assistance and protection. Some governments are unable or unwilling to provide that protection. Many IDPs are forced into camps, and many lack the means or ability to leave their country of origin, gain access to employment and provide for themselves and their family.  


Migrant is the term for someone who is moving between temporary homes, within their origin country or across international borders. This is different from an immigrant, who makes the conscious decision to move and resettle in a new country. Migrants aren’t forced to leave their country of origin due to violence, but often have just as urgent needs to find a better future, mostly based on improving their economic potential.  

While legal migrants enjoy many rights and refugees have their own special protections, migrants who are travelling without valid passports or travel documents — including those who were forced to flee without those documents or do not have them — are often much more vulnerable.    

Whether a refugee, IDP or forced migrant, it is important to remember people in this situation flee out of necessity and not choice. They are running from war, conflict, disaster and famine that they have had no role in creating. They survive and strive to build new lives in the most difficult circumstances and from our experience, they are strong, unsung heroes. 

Every migrant is a human being with human rights. We must reject intolerance, discrimination and policies driven by xenophobic rhetoric and the scapegoating of migrants

Former UN Secretary General, Ban Ki-Moon
NFI materials being distributed by Concern in masisi, DRC. Photo: Kieran McConville/Concern Worldwide

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