The term migrant can be understood as "any person who lives temporarily or permanently in a country where he or she was not born, and has acquired some significant social ties to this country."1 However, this may be a too narrow definition when considering that, according to some states' policies, a person can be considered as a migrant even when s/he is born in the country.

The UN Convention on the Rights of Migrants defines a migrant worker as a "person who is to be engaged, is engaged or has been engaged in a remunerated activity in a State of which he or she is not a national." From this a broader definition of migrants follows:

"The term 'migrant' in article 1.1 (a) should be understood as covering all cases where the decision to migrate is taken freely by the individual concerned, for reasons of 'personal convenience' and without intervention of an external compelling factor."2

This definition indicates that migrant does not refer to refugees, displaced or others forced or compelled to leave their homes. Migrants are people who make choices about when to leave and where to go, even though these choices are sometimes extremely constrained. Indeed, some scholars make a distinction between voluntary and involuntary migration. While certain refugee movements face neither external obstacles to free movement nor is impelled by urgent needs and a lack of alternative means of satisfying them in the country of present residence, others may blend into the extreme of relocation entirely uncontrolled by the people on the move.

The Special Rapporteur of the Commission on Human Rights has proposed that the following persons should be considered as migrants:

(a) Persons who are outside the territory of the State of which their are nationals or citizens, are not subject to its legal protection and are in the territory of another State;

(b) Persons who do not enjoy the general legal recognition of rights which is inherent in the granting by the host State of the status of refugee, naturalised person or of similar status;

(c) Persons who do not enjoy either general legal protection of their fundamental rights by virtue of diplomatic agreements, visas or other agreements.3

This broad definition of migrants reflects the current difficulty in distinguishing between migrants who leave their countries because of political persecution, conflicts, economic problems, environmental degradation or a combination of these reasons and those who do so in search of conditions of survival or well-being that does not exist in their place of origin. It also attempts to define migrant population in a way that takes new situations into consideration.

Turning to the concept of migration, it is the crossing of the boundary of a political or administrative unit for a certain minimum period of time. It includes the movement of refugees, displaced persons, uprooted people as well as economic migrants. Internal migration refers to a move from one area (a province, district or municipality) to another within one country. International migration is a territorial relocation of people between nation-states. Two forms of relocation can be excluded from this broad definition: first, a territorial movement which does not lead to any change in ties of social membership and therefore remains largely inconsequential both for the individual and for the society at the points of origin and destination, such as tourism; second, a relocation in which the individuals or the groups concerned are purely passive objects rather than active agents of the movement, such as organised transfer of refugees from states of origins to a safe haven.

The dominant forms of migration can be distinguished according to the motives (economic, family reunion, refugees) or legal status (irregular migration, controlled emigration/immigration, free emigration/immigration) of those concerned. Most countries distinguish between a number of categories in their migration policies and statistics. The variations existing between countries indicate that there are no objective definitions of migration. What follows is a more common categorisation of international migrants:

  • Temporary labour migrants (also known as guest workers or overseas contract workers): people who migrate for a limited period of time in order to take up employment and send money home.

  • Highly skilled and business migrants: people with qualifications as managers, executives, professionals, technicians or similar, who move within the internal labour markets of trans-national corporations and international organisations, or who seek employment through international labour markets for scarce skills. Many countries welcome such migrants and have special 'skilled and business migration' programmes to encourage them to come.

  • Irregular migrants (or undocumented / illegal migrants): people who enter a country, usually in search of employment, without the necessary documents and permits.
  • Forced migration: in a broader sense, this includes not only refugees and asylum seekers but also people forced to move due to external factors, such as environmental catastrophes or development projects. This form of migration has similar characteristics to displacement.

  • Family members (or family reunion / family reunification migrants): people sharing family ties joining people who have already entered an immigration country under one of the above mentioned categories. Many countries recognise in principle the right to family reunion for legal migrants. Other countries, especially those with contract labour systems, deny the right to family reunion.

  • Return migrants: people who return to their countries of origin after a period in another country.4

Migration is an important factor in the erosion of traditional boundaries between languages, cultures, ethnic group, and nation-states. Even those who do not migrate are affected by movements of people in or out of their communities, and by the resulting changes. Migration is not a single act of crossing a border, but rather a lifelong process that affects all aspects of the lives of those involved.

For more information, please see in particular:

1 Migration and Integration - some basic concepts

2 Measures to improve the situation and ensure the human rights and dignity of all migrant workers. 1998. Report of the working group of intergovernmental experts on the human rights of migrants submitted in accordance with Commission on Human Rights resolution 1997/15. COMMISSION ON HUMAN RIGHTS Fifty-fourth session, Intergovernmental working group of experts on the human rights of migrants.

3 Gabriela Rodríguez Pizarro, Special Rapporteur of the Commission on Human rights in A/57/292, Human rights of migrants, Note by the Secretary-General. 9August 2002.

4 From Castles, S. 2000. International migration at the beginning of the twenty-first century. International Social Science Journal, Vol. 165

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