Sharing Information

Letter to the Editor: Sharing Information

By: LynAnne Evenson, MA, LMFT

As a member of the social justice committee, I was excited to hear that this edition of the MAMFT newsletter would be dedicated to social justice and diverse populations.  I thought I would like to share about the population that I work with and some terms for people to understand.  I work with Refugees and Asylees, as well as those who identify as immigrants, and the terms and definitions can be confusing if you aren’t familiar with them.

In writing these definitions i draw on the 1951 Geneva Convention which established the guidelines for refugees and the rights and expectations of all of the countries who signed it, and the 1967 Protocol which expanded its scope; as well as my 7+ years of experience in working with these populations.  This is by no means an exhaustive list, but is rather intended as an opening to understand the nuances of our immigration system and some of the backgrounds of  populations being served in Minnesota today.


A refugee is someone who has been forced to flee his or her country because of persecution, war or violence. A refugee has a well-founded fear of persecution for reasons of race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a particular social group. Most likely, they cannot return home or are afraid to do so. War and ethnic, tribal and religious violence are leading causes of refugees fleeing their countries (UNHCR 2018)

Refugees usually are registered after they leave their country of origin by the United Nations/International Organization for Migration.  Refugee camps are created to house the large amounts of refugees fleeing their countries.  For example the largest refugee camp in the world is Dadaab, in Kenya, and was created in 1991 to accommodate the refugees leaving Somalia.


When people flee their own country and seek sanctuary in another country, they apply for asylum – the right to be recognized as a refugee and receive legal protection and material assistance. An asylum seeker must demonstrate that his or her fear of persecution in his or her home country is well-founded (UNHCR 2018).

Asylees are different from the refugee resettlement process in that they are able to get to another country and seek sanctuary instead of being registered in a refugee camp with the United Nations/International Organization for Migration.  For example a few years ago during the war in Syria many Syrians crossed over into various countries in Europe to seek asylum.  They still have to go through a vetting process and have many intensive interviews and background investigations to ensure that they qualify for asylum.  You may also hear them called Asylum Seekers, people who leave their countries and seek asylum in a new country because they cannot expect protection in their own countries.


This is a general term used for people who move from one area to another, based on a variety of reasons.  Safety and economic needs are usually the main reasons.  While all refugees can be considered migrants, not all migrants can be considered refugees.  For example, the young men who travel from western Africa to Italy to find work would be considered economic migrants.


This is a broad and general term to describe people who leave their country of origin and move to live in a different country.

Internally Displaced People (IDP):

An internally displaced person, or IDP, is someone who has been forced to flee their home but never cross an international border. These individuals seek safety anywhere they can find it—in nearby towns, schools, settlements, internal camps, even forests and fields. IDPs, which include people displaced by internal strife and natural disasters, are the largest group that UNHCR assists. Unlike refugees, IDPs are not protected by international law or eligible to receive many types of aid because they are legally under the protection of their own government (UNHCR 2018)

IDPs struggle for assistance since they are supposedly under the protection of their own government, however depending on the country, the protection or assistance they need may never come from the government.  For example, there are many different ethnic groups in Myanmar who have fled their cities due to violence and natural disaster (flooding right now) and they will not receive any assistance from their government.  This is also the case in Syria, the Syrians who remained and did not cross international borders still had to move to different areas where they could shelter from the fighting.

Illegal immigrant:

This is a term that generalizes the immigration process in the United States. It is based on the assumption that there are “legal” ways to immigrate or that there are “proper” channels. While there are legal visas, it ignores the fact that applying for asylum is legal.  It is a dehumanizing term as it focuses on a person’s “validity” and attempts to strip the humanity from them.

International Organization for Migration (IOM):

An intergovernmental organization that gathers, tracks, reports, facilitates and monitors migration of all forms.  Including but not limited to: refugees, internally displaced people, and economic migrants.

United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR):

Created in 1951, it is dedicated to protecting and assisting refugees around the world, as well as asylees, IDPs, and stateless persons.

Resources for Professionals and Practitioners:

Society of Refugee Healthcare Providers

Metro Immigrant and Refugee Health Network

Immigrant Law Center of Minnesota




The above article is a letter to the editor. Opinions expressed in the MAMFT NEWS do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Editors or of MAMFT.