Understanding Migration and Displacement

Original Editor - Naomi O'Reilly

Top Contributors - Naomi O'Reilly, Kim Jackson, Jess Bell, Carin Hunter and Shaimaa Eldib  

Introduction[edit | edit source]

Migration is defined as the movement of persons away from their place of usual residence, either across an international border or within a state. It can be viewed both with positive connotations (e.g. moving to start a new job, seeking better living conditions) or with negative connotations (e.g. escaping political oppression, conflict, violence, disaster or human rights violations). It is generally accompanied by a significant change in the cultural set up of both the migrants and the host community.[1] According to the Migration Data Portal, at the end of 2020 there were 280.6 million migrants globally.[2] Migration may begin internally but often crosses international boundaries just as international migration may one day cycle back home.

Displacement specifically is the forced movement of persons who have been forced or obliged to flee or to leave their homes or places of habitual residence, in particular as a result of, or in order to, avoid the effects of armed conflict, situations of generalised violence, violations of human rights or natural or human-made disasters.[3] There have been displaced persons spread throughout history as long as there has been natural or man-made disasters, climate change, conflict, war, persecution, and political instability. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), at the end of 2021 there were 89.3 million people worldwide who have forcibly had to flee their homes as a result of persecution, conflict, violence, human rights violations or events seriously disturbing public order. This includes 27.1 million refugees, 53.2 million internally displaced persons and over 4.6 million asylum seekers. Currently there are more displaced persons world-wide than there have been at any time since the end of World War 2.[4]

There is a wide range of terminology focused around the movement of people, with terms often mixed together and sometimes used interchangeably. Although breaking down terminology might not seem important, it is increasingly recognised that language shapes our perception of reality. Thus, the words we use to talk about migration have an effect on how we think, talk and act about migration. Having a good understanding of these various terms is important for our understanding of displacement and its impact on the individual, family and community. [3]

Migration[edit | edit source]

Types of Migration[edit | edit source]

  1. Internal Migration
    • "The movement of people within a State involving the establishment of a new temporary or permanent residence. [...] Internal migration movements can be temporary or permanent and include those who have been displaced from their habitual place of residence such as internally displaced persons, as well as persons who decide to move to a new place, such as in the case of rural–urban migration. The term also covers both nationals and non‐nationals moving within a State, provided that they move away from their place of habitual residence."[3]
  2. International Migration
    • "The movement of persons away from their place of usual residence and across an international border to a country of which they are not nationals." As for internal migration, this can be temporary or permanent and includes those who have been displaced from their "habitual place of residence", and people who have chosen to move to a new country. It excludes movements that are due to “recreation, holiday, visits to friends and relatives, business, medical treatment or religious pilgrimages”.[3]

Reasons for Migration[edit | edit source]

  1. Climate Migration
    • "The movement of a person or groups of persons who, predominantly for reasons of sudden or progressive change in the environment due to climate change, are obliged to leave their habitual place of residence, or choose to do so, either temporarily or permanently, within a State or across an international border. "[3]
  2. Labour Migration
    • "Movement of persons from one State to another, or within their own country of residence, for the purpose of employment."[3] This includes migrants moving within the country and across international borders.[3]
  3. Irregular Migration
    • "Movement of persons that takes place outside the laws, regulations, or international agreements governing the entry into or exit from the State of origin, transit or destination."[3] It is generally used to "identify persons moving outside regular migration channels." These migrants may have had no other option but to use these irregular migration channels. It may include: asylum seekers, victims of trafficking, or unaccompanied migrant children.[3]
  4. Forced Migration or Displacement
    • "The movement of persons who have been forced or obliged to flee or leave their homes or places of habitual residence, in particular as a result of or in order to avoid the effects of armed conflict, generalized violence, violations of human rights or natural or human-made disasters."[3]

Carlos Sluzki’s Model of Migration[edit | edit source]

The process of migration can be divided into the following discrete stages. Each step has unique features that trigger different coping mechanisms and showcases different kinds of conflicts and symptoms.[1]

  1. Preparatory Stage:
    • The first stage begins with the decision 'to move' made by the members of the family. It involves the exchange of letters, a request for visa applications, or any other act that substantiates the intent to migrate. It has a varied time frame. The stage is marked by a course of ups and downs, a short period of euphoria followed by a brief period of dismay. The poor performance of individuals seen in this stage is due to the result of efforts, tensions, and emotions.[1]
  2. The Act of Migration:
    • The migrant undergoes a painful journey with little or no celebrated custom upon arrival. The act of migration may take a considerable amount of time. War-displaced people may have to stay in transient camps in various countries before making it to their final destination. The mode of the migratory act may also vary considerably.[1]
  3. Period of Overcompensation:
    • The stress following the migratory act is generally not seen in the weeks or months following the migration. Most of the time, the participants are unaware of the stressful nature of the entire experience and its cumulative influence. In the period immediately following migration, the priority of the family is absolute survival, i.e., the satisfaction of the basic needs. The new immigrant may show a clear focus of attention-of-consciousness, but the overall field of consciousness may be blurred or clouded. Many families manage to establish a relative halt on the process of acculturation and accommodation for months, so the conflicts tend to stay dormant in this period.[1]
  4. Period of Decompensation or Crisis:
    • The reshaping of the new reality, identity, and compatibility with the environment takes place in this phase. This stage is marked by conflicts. There is frequent need to retain certain family habits though they differ from the new context while letting off other traits as they differ from the original culture. This phase is delicate and often challenging but is unavoidable. It creeps into the family leading to clashes. The family coping effects express themselves in the course of the months, sometimes years, after the migration.[1]
  5. Transgenerational Impact:
    • Delay in the adaptive mechanism becomes evident in the second generation of migrated families. An environment similar to the country of origin generally slows down the adaptive changes, and no consequences are seen if the second generation socialises in this secluded environment. However, if the process of socialisation occurs in diverse habitats, then whatever has been avoided by a first-generation will appear in the second one. This is generally expressed as a clash between generations called an intergenerational conflict of values.[1]

Migrant[edit | edit source]

There is no legally accepted definition of the term “migrant” at an international level, and as a result, there is significant debate and dispute around who a migrant is. There are two main views in relation to migrant as a term: the inclusivist view recognises migrants as people who have moved from their usual place of residence, regardless of their legal status and their motivations for moving; the residualist view sees migrants as those who have moved from their usual place of residence for every reason other than those fleeing war or persecution. [5]

The United Nations’ International Organization for Migration (IOM) uses an inclusivist view that sees migrant as an umbrella term for any person who has resided away from their usual place of residence, whether within a country or across an international border, regardless of the person’s legal status; whether the movement is involuntary or voluntary; whatever the reason for the movement are; or, what the length of the stay is.[3]
However, the United Nations Convention International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families [6], and the United Nations Refugee Agency [7] use a residualist view. The term 'migrant' refers only to situations where the decision to migrate is taken freely by the individual concerned, for reasons of 'personal convenience' to improve their lives and standard of living through: finding work, seeking better education and reuniting with family and without intervention of an external compelling factor due to direct threat or persecution. [8]

Figure.1 The Meaning of Migrants [8]

Displacement or Forced Migration[edit | edit source]

Forced migration or displacement refers to the "movement of persons who have been forced or obliged to flee or to leave their homes or places of habitual residence, in particular as a result of or in order to avoid the effects of armed conflict, situations of generalized violence, violations of human rights or natural or human-made disasters."[3] This migration can be either within their own country or between countries after being displaced from their home country. There are some differences between the different types of displaced persons which we will explore below.

Internally Displaced Person[edit | edit source]

According to the United Nations Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement, an Internally Displaced Person (IDP), are "persons or groups of persons who have been forced or obliged to flee or to leave their homes or places of habitual residence, in particular as a result of or in order to avoid the effects of armed conflict, situations of generalised violence, violations of human rights or natural or human-made disasters, and who have not crossed an internationally recognised state border."[9] There are two important elements in the IDP definition: the movement is involuntary and takes place within national borders. Prevention of forced displacement and the protection of IDPs is the primary responsibility of the national authority.  

While often referred to as refugees, IDPs do not fall within the legal definitions of a refugee as they remain entitled to all the rights and guarantees as citizens and other habitual residents of their home country and remain under the protection of its government. In many cases, the displacement occurs as a result of the government. This can make IDPs more vulnerable to further displacement and other protection risks, such as lack of access to basic services, family separation, sexual and gender based violence, trafficking, discrimination and harassment.[10]   [11]

According to the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC), at the end of 2021 there were 59.1 million IDPs; 53.2 million as a result of conflict, violence or human rights violations and 5.9 million as a result of disaster. Syria (6,662,000), Afghanistan (5,704,000), Democratic Republic of the Congo (5,540,000), Colombia (5,236,400), Yemen (4,300,000) and Ethiopia (4,168,000) are countries with some of the largest internally displaced populations. [12]

Asylum Seeker[edit | edit source]

An asylum seeker is someone who claims to be a refugee, but whose claim has not yet been fully evaluated. When people flee their own country and seek sanctuary in another country, they apply for asylum or the right to be recognised as a refugee and receive legal protection and material assistance. An asylum seeker must demonstrate that their fear of persecution in their home country is well-founded. [3]

This person would have applied for asylum on the grounds that returning to their home country would lead to persecution on account of race, religion, nationality or political beliefs. Someone is an asylum seeker for so long as their application is pending. Not every asylum seeker will be recognised as a refugee, but every refugee is initially an asylum seeker. According to the UNHCR Global Trends 2021, at the end of 2021 there were 4.6 million asylum seekers globally.[4]

Refugee[edit | edit source]

A refugee is someone who has been forced to flee their country and crossed an international border to find safety in another country as a result of persecution, war or violence. Refugees are defined by the 1951 Refugee Convention as: “someone who is unable or unwilling to return to their country of origin owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion.”[3][10] The leading causes of refugees fleeing their home country include war, ethnic, tribal and religious violence, with their situation so perilous that they cross national borders to seek safety in nearby countries and seek to gain access to assistance from other states and aid organisations.

A vital part of being recognised as a refugee is Refugee Status Determination (RSD) [13]. This is a legal process that governments or UNHCR use to determine whether a person seeking international protection is considered a refugee under International, National or Regional Law. The process can be lengthy, complicated and is certainly imperfect. There is still no single uniting model for RSD. States do have the primary responsibility for determining the status of asylum seekers but UNHCR will step in where states are unable or unwilling. [13]

According to the UNHCR Global Report 2021, at the end of 2021 there were 27.1 million refugees globally, with 69% of those coming from just five countries; Syrian Arab Republic (6.8 Million), Venezuela (4.6 million), Afghanistan (2.7 million), South Sudan (2.4 million) and Myanmar (1.2 million). [14]

Stateless Person[edit | edit source]

Stateless persons have been described as "non-persons, unclaimed, outcasts, legal ghosts or the ultimate forgotten people". These expressions reflect the dramatic impact that statelessness can have on an individual’s enjoyment of human rights and overall well-being. While the term "stateless" may imply being without a state, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the international legal definition of a stateless person is “a person who is not considered as a national by any State under the operation of its law”. As such a stateless person is someone who is not a citizen of any country, which can occur due to a variety of reasons, including sovereign, legal, technical or administrative decisions or oversights including.[15]

  • the transfer of territory or sovereignty which alters the nationality status of some citizens of the former state(s), leaving them without citizenship.
  • arbitrary deprivation of nationality of either individuals or groups by a government.
  • administrative oversights, misunderstandings or conflicts of law – for instance when a child is born in a country that grants nationality by descent only, but the laws of the state of which the parents are nationals grant citizenship by birth only on their territory.
  • administrative or procedural problems such as excessive fees, unrealistic deadlines, lack of appeal or review procedures and failure to notify individuals of registration or other obligations.
  • individual renunciation of one nationality without first acquiring another citizenship.
  • nationality may be automatically altered in the case of marriage or dissolution of a marriage between couples from different countries.
  • failure to register children at birth so there is no proof of where or to whom they were born.
  • birth to a stateless person. [15]


Citizenship is the legal bond between a government and an individual, and allows for certain political, economic, social and other rights of the individual, as well as the responsibilities of both government and citizen. The UNHCR’s estimated number of stateless persons is 4.2 million, although this number could be much higher due to limited data, with the Rohingya from Myanmar the largest stateless population for whom data is available.[16][17]

The following categories of persons may be at particular risk of statelessness when they have difficulties establishing their nationality:

  • migrant populations where difficulties to prove identity and nationality affect two or more generations;
  • persons living in border areas;
  • minorities and persons who have perceived or actual ties with foreign countries;
  • nomadic or semi-nomadic populations;
  • persons who have been trafficked or smuggled. [15][18]

Human Trafficking[edit | edit source]

According to the Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons “Trafficking in Persons” is defined 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". (Article 3, paragraph (a)). [19]

Human trafficking is another form of forced displacement. Men, women and children of all ages and from all backgrounds can become victims of this crime, which occurs in every region of the world. The traffickers often use violence or fraudulent employment agencies and fake promises of education and job opportunities to trick and coerce their victims. Humanitarian crises such as those associated with conflicts or natural disasters may exacerbate pre-existing trafficking trends and give rise to new ones. While some forms of trafficking could be a direct result of crises, such as exploitative sexual services demanded by armed groups or the forced recruitment of child soldiers, others are less evident, with traffickers thriving on the widespread human, material, social and economic losses caused by crises and the inability of families and communities to protect themselves and their children. [20] States have an obligation to correctly identify victims of trafficking to ensure that their rights are not further violated and that they can access assistance, protection measures and solutions, including physical and mental health support, witness protection and remedies. [21]

Human Smuggling[edit | edit source]

According to the Protocol against the Smuggling of Migrants by Land, Sea and Air, “Smuggling of migrants” is defined 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"; [22]

Smuggling of migrants affects all regions of the world. Given increasing obstacles to access safety, many displaced persons and other persons in need of international protection are often compelled to use smugglers as their only means to flee persecution, conflict, violence and human rights violations. Smuggling need not include any form of force, coercion, deception, or abuse of power but in many situations these may be present, and every year thousands of migrants die as a result of smuggling activities.[23]

Conclusion[edit | edit source]

Migration has always existed, and will continue long into the future but the term migrants has become more politically loaded over the years, and remains a contentious point of discussion. Consistent public debate is challenging when multiple definitions exist and terminology is used interchangeably. While many individuals migrate out of choice, many others migrate out of necessity and for many they are forced to leave their home. Every migrant is a unique person protected by human rights, while some migrants may have specific vulnerabilities and as a result have particular rights because of who they are or what they have experienced for example children, people with a disability, survivors of trafficking, stateless persons and refugees. The use of ‘migrants’ as a label for all should always go hand in hand with recognising and protecting the rights of each of the specific groups identified above.

"It is important to understand the background of the displaced person, because each one has been through different circumstances, have different backgrounds and different beliefs. The therapist need to know how to communicate with the displaced person and what they have been through, to overcome this" Anonymous Refugee from the Physiotherapy and Refugees Education Project (PREP)

Optional Resources[edit | edit source]

Terminology[edit | edit source]

Migrants[edit | edit source]

Internally Displaced Persons[edit | edit source]

Asylum Seekers and Refugees[edit | edit source]

Refugees[edit | edit source]

Stateless Person[edit | edit source]

Human Trafficking and Smuggling[edit | edit source]

References[edit | edit source]

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