There are a lot of words to refer to people who move from one place to another. Some are used in overlapping ways, but there are key differences between many of them, including whether the person is coming or going, and for what reasons.
In this article, we’ll break down the differences in meaning and use between the words immigration and emigration, the related forms immigrate, emigrate, immigrant, and emigrant, as well as the similar terms émigré, migrant, refugee, and asylum seeker.
Immigrant vs. emigrant
An immigrant is a person who has immigrated—“moved to another country, usually for permanent residence.” Note the past tense in the definition: a person is not considered an immigrant until they have settled in the new place.
An emigrant, on the other hand, is “someone who leaves a country or region.” A person is considered an emigrant as soon as they leave with the intention to leave permanently (and not just to travel, for example).
The terms immigration and emigration refer to the act, but they can also refer to a group or number of such people, as in Emigration is at an all-time low, but immigration is expected to continue to increase.
The difference is that emigration is leaving and immigration is coming—an emigrant is someone who moves away, while an immigrant is someone who moves in. Of course, emigrant and immigrant often refer to the same person—people who are emigrating are also immigrating (if they leave, they have to go somewhere). The word emigrant is often used alongside an indication of the person’s home country or region, whereas immigrant is often alongside an indication of the destination country.
But there are good reasons to use each word in different situations. For example, one country may be a common destination for immigrants, while another may experience the frequent departure of emigrants.
The word immigrant is more likely to be used in a general way—that is, a way that takes both the starting point and the destination into account—whereas emigrant is almost always used in reference to the place that has been left.
Another word for an emigrant is émigré, which especially refers to an emigrant who has fled their country due to political conditions.
Migrant vs. immigrant
Most generally, the word migrant can refer to a person who moves from one place to another (and perhaps back and forth).
However, the word migrant is particularly associated with workers and is especially used in the term migrant worker, meaning a person who continually moves from place to place to find work.
It is also sometimes used as another word for immigrant. The word immigrant often implies that the person is settling in the new place permanently, or at least intends to settle there for a long time. When the word migrant is used to refer to an immigrant, it often implies that the person may not be able to stay permanently due to being subject to removal by the government of that country.
Migrant vs. refugee
A refugee is “a person who flees for refuge or safety, especially to a foreign country, as in a time of political upheaval, war, etc.”
Refugee is often a much more specific word than migrant. In some cases, migrants may be refugees, but the word migrant itself doesn’t imply that the departure is due to danger. As noted, in the section above, migrant does sometimes imply that the reason for movement is the pursuit of work.
Refugee vs. asylum seeker
An asylum seeker is “a person who applies for refuge or asylum in a foreign country or its embassy, especially for political reasons.”
Some refugees may be asylum seekers, but not all asylum seekers necessarily consider themselves refugees. That’s because the word refugee often implies that the person has been forced to flee—that they had no other choice but to leave because of the immediate threat of danger. The term asylum seeker doesn’t necessarily imply this—there may be other circumstances involved with the decision to seek asylum.