Key Migration Terms​

Assimilation- A one-directional policy approach to integration whereby an ethnic or social group – usually a minority – adopts the cultural practices of another – usually that of the majority ethnic or social group. Assimilation involves the subsuming of language, traditions, values, mores and behaviour normally leading the assimilating party to become less socially distinguishable from other members of the receiving society.

Assisted Voluntary Return and  Reintegration - Administrative, logistical or financial support, including reintegration assistance, to migrants unable or unwilling to remain in the host country or country of transit and who decide to return to their country of origin.

Asylum seeker - An individual who is seeking international protection. In countries with individualized procedures, an asylum seeker is someone whose claim has not yet been finally decided on by the country in which he or she has submitted it. Not every asylum seeker will ultimately be recognized as a refugee, but every recognized refugee is initially an asylum seeker.

Border management - The administration of measures related to authorized movement of persons (regular migration) and goods, whilst preventing unauthorized movement of persons (irregular migration) and goods, detecting those responsible for smuggling, trafficking and related crimes and identifying the victims of such crimes or any other person in need of immediate or longer-term assistance and/or (international) protection.

Brain drain - Depletion of human capital in a specific occupation or economic sector resulting from the emigration of skilled workers engaged in this occupation or sector from the country of origin to another country (or from one region of a country to another – internal migration).

Brain gain - From the perspective of a country of destination, immigration of skilled workers into the country resulting in the acquisition of human capital.

Circular migration - A form of migration in which people repeatedly move back and forth between two or more countries.

Country of origin - In the migration context, a country of nationality or of former habitual residence of a person or group of persons who have migrated abroad, irrespective of whether they migrate regularly or irregularly.

Emigration - From the perspective of the country of departure, the act of moving from one’s country of nationality or usual residence to another country, so that the country of destination effectively becomes his or her new country of usual residence.

Facilitated migration - Fostering or encouraging of regular migration by making travel easier and more convenient. This may take the form of a streamlined visa application process, or efficient and well-staffed passenger inspection procedures.

Forced migration - A migratory movement which, although the drivers can be diverse, involves force, compulsion, or coercion

Freedom of movement - In human rights law, a human right comprising three basic elements: freedom of movement within the territory of a country and to choose one’s residence, the right to leave any country and the right to return to one’s own country. Source: Adapted from Universal Declaration of Human Rights (adopted 10 December 1948) UNGA Res 217(A), Art. 13.

Immigration - From the perspective of the country of arrival, the act of moving into a country other than one’s country of nationality or usual residence, so that the country of destination effectively becomes his or her new country of usual residence.

Internally Displaced Person (IDP) - Persons or groups of persons who have been forced or IDPs 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, and who have not crossed an internationally recognized State border.

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.

Labour migration - Movement of persons from one State to another, or within their own country of residence, for the purpose of employment.

Migrant - An umbrella term, not defined under international law, reflecting the common lay understanding of a person who moves away from his or her place of usual residence, whether within a country or across an international border, temporarily or permanently, and for a variety of reasons. The term includes a number of well-defined legal categories of people, such as migrant workers; persons whose particular types of movements are legally defined, such as smuggled migrants; as well as those whose status or means of movement are not specifically defined under international law, such as international students.

  • economic migrant - While not a category in international law, the term is sometimes used to refer to any person who is moving or has moved across an international border or within a State, solely or primarily motivated by economic opportunities.
  • documented migrant - A migrant authorized to enter and to stay pursuant to the law of that State or to international agreements to which that State is a party and who is in possession of documents necessary to prove his or her regular status in the country.
  • Migrant in an irregular situation A person who moves or has moved across an international border and is not authorized to enter or to stay in a State pursuant to the law of that State and to international agreements to which that State is a party.

  • Skilled migrant worker - A migrant worker who has the appropriate skill level and specialization to carry out the tasks and duties of a given job.
  • Guest Worker - Generally considered to be a migrant worker recruited for a restricted time of residence and employment. Also called a temporary migrant worker.

Migration - The movement of persons away from their place of usual residence, either across an international border or within a State.

Migration management - The management and implementation of the whole set of activities primarily by States within national systems or through bilateral and multilateral cooperation, concerning all aspects of migration and the mainstreaming of migration considerations into public policies. The term refers to planned approaches to the implementation and operationalization of policy, legislative and administrative frameworks, developed by the institutions in charge of migration

Naturalization - Any mode of acquisition after birth of a nationality not previously held by the person that requires an application by this person or his or her legal agent as well as an act of granting nationality by a public authority.

Push-pull factors - A model categorizing the drivers of migration into push and pull factors, whereby push factors are those which drive people to leave their country and pull factors are those attracting them into the country of destination.

Receiving country - Usually, the country of destination of a migrant. In the case of return or repatriation, also the country of origin or, in the context of resettlement, a country that has accepted to receive a certain number of migrants, including refugees, on a yearly basis by presidential, ministerial or parliamentary decision. In the context of diplomatic or consular relations, the receiving country is the State which has consented to the establishment of consular posts or diplomatic missions of another State on its territory.

Refugee (as described in the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees) - A person who, owing to a well-founded fear of persecution for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country; or who, not having a nationality and being outside the country of his former habitual residence as a result of such events, is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to return to it.

Remittances - Private international monetary transfers that migrants make, individually or collectively.

Repatriation - The personal right of a prisoner of war, civil detainee, refugee, or of a civilian to return to his or her country of nationality under specific conditions laid down in various international instruments.

Resettlement (refugees) - The transfer of refugees from the country in which they have sought protection to another State that has agreed to admit them – as refugees – with permanent residence status.

Smuggling (of migrants) - The procurement, in order to obtain, directly or indirectly, a financial or other material benefit, of the irregular entry of a person into a State Party of which the person is not a national or a permanent resident.

Stateless person - A person who is not considered as a national by any State under the operation of its law.

Trafficking in persons - 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.

Xenophobia - At the international level, no universally accepted definition of xenophobia exists, though it can be described as attitudes, prejudices and behaviour that reject, exclude and often vilify persons, based on the perception that they are outsiders or foreigners to the community, society or national identity.


1 IOM, Glossary on Migration, International Migration Law Series No. 34, 2019