Ominous clouds looming over a desert landscape in Southern Tunisia. Photo taken by Ahlam Chemlali, 2022.

In the realm of legal distinctions, the gap between migrants and refugees is profound. Yet, in the intricate tapestry of reality, the transition from migrant to refugee, and refugee to migrant, is much more complicated and unfolds with an almost seamless grace over time - all depending on place, environment, and serendipitous encounters. As we gaze into the future, the prospect of distinguishing unequivocally between these narratives looms as an increasingly elusive task.

In the northern expanse of Burkina Faso, a young man, whom I shall refer to as Samuel, embarked on a poignant odyssey in early 2020. This transformative journey led him through the vastness of the Sahara and across five international borders before finally arriving to North Africa. Motivated by the profound loss of his father and confronted by an environmental disaster marked by the distressing recurrence of crop failures on their ancestral land, Samuel, the eldest among his four siblings, found himself compelled to navigate the arduous path of sustaining and providing for his family.

Samuel journeyed to the adjacent country of Mali in pursuit of employment, only to find it emmeshed in conflict, rendering it too perilous to remain. Shortly thereafter, he crossed into Algeria, where the absence of a work permit subjected him to underpayment and exploitation at the hands of employers. Alongside other undocumented migrant workers, Samuel faced physical abuse from the authorities, living in constant fear for his safety. Amidst these trials, whispers among fellow migrants alluded to the prospect of plentiful labor opportunities in Libya, compelling Samuel to embark on the subsequent chapter of his journey.

Soon after reaching Sabhā, situated in Libya's southern 'No Mans Land' on the fringes of the Sahara Desert, where a climate of lawlessness and anarchy persisted, Samuel was kidnapped by a local militia and taken to one of Libya’s notorious detention camps, where horrendous abuse against migrants is a well-documented daily occurrence. For eight months, Samuel lived with hundreds of migrants in dire conditions, subjected to forced labor, violence, and torture.

Alongside Musa, another young man from Mali, one fateful night, Samuel orchestrated a daring escape through a shattered window, slipping away from the confines of the camp under the cloak of darkness. Their initial plan to secure a boat from Zuwarah in Western Libya was thwarted by the realization that they lacked sufficient funds for the smugglers. Undeterred, they embarked on a challenging journey toward the Tunisian border on foot.

The demanding trek across the desert spanned several days, demanding a toll on their physical stamina. Tragically, Musa, afflicted with poor health and severe injuries from the grim confinement in the Libyan camp, succumbed to his ailments, coughing blood in his final moments. In a somber act of respect, Samuel laid his friend to rest near an olive grove, offering a prayer before continuing towards the distant border, alone.

Upon arrival at the Tunisian border, Samuel found himself initially detained and subjected to the harsh treatment of border police. However, through resourcefulness and resilience, he managed to secure passage by offering them the last Libyan dinars he had hidden in his shoes. In the coastal enclave of Zarzis in Tunisia, close to the Libyan border, Samuel was registered with UNHCR—the UN Refugee Agency. Following a lengthy and kafkaesque asylum process, he finally obtained refugee status.

Journey from Migrant to Refugee

I met Samuel during my fieldwork in Tunisia. His harrowing story, marked by the specter of death in the Sahara Desert, police brutality in Algeria, and torture in Libya sadly echoed the narratives of countless others I have encountered in similar situations over the years. For many of them, the journey was never about migrating to Europe but rather about finding work, supporting their families, and creating a meaningful and dignified life.

Samuel shares this experience with most migrants and refugees, despite the escalating militarized control at the southern EU borders and the expanding border enforcement into Africa. Which has led to fortified borders and the establishment of enduring confinement zones in the North African borderlands, which, in many aspects, have evolved into seemingly impenetrable spaces, despite being paradoxically referred to as a transit region.

Samuel started off as a migrant but ended up fleeing from Libya. When I met him in southern Tunisia, he had become a refugee. Many people envision the terms ‘migrant’ and ‘refugee’ as two very different categories with clear end evident distinctions. Reality, however, presents a more fluid and diverse picture. The term ‘migrant’ is often seen as a kind of overarching category, referring to a person leaving their own country to settle or reside in a new one. In this context, a refugee is considered a sort of “subcategory,” meaning a refugee is a migrant who has fled their home country.

The UN Refugee Agency, UNCHR, rigidly distinguishes between migrants and refugees to protect the rights of refugees. There is indeed a significant legal difference between the two groups concerning protection and the right to reside. Regarding migrants, UNHCR states on its website that migrants “choose to move not because of a direct threat of persecution or death, but mainly to improve their lives by finding work, or in some cases for education, family reunion, or other reasons” (Edwards, 2016).

Concerning refugees, UNHCR writes, “refugees are people who have fled war, conflict, violence, persecution, or violations of human rights and find themselves outside their home country. They are defined and protected by International Law and must not be expelled or returned to situations where their life and freedom are at risk”.

The inclination to blur the distinctions between refugees and migrants, or to classify refugees as a subset of migrants, can yield grave consequences for those escaping persecution or conflict. This challenge is compounded by evolving concepts such as 'forced migration,' denoting individuals compelled to leave their home country in pursuit of opportunities or protection elsewhere. Additionally, the term 'voluntary emigration,' as falsely portrayed by the Israeli government during the Gaza War in 2023, is, in reality, a forced displacement of a population. Migration scholars have rightfully emphasized that this is neither voluntary nor migration; rather, it serves as a euphemism for ethnic cleansing.

Another category, ‘mixed migration,’ characterizes the contemporary phenomenon of mixed groups of migrants traveling together, typically in an irregular fashion, sharing the same routes, means of transport, relying on the same smuggling networks and information, but for different reasons and backgrounds. The mixed movements, as observed over the Mediterranean or across the Sahara, may include asylum seekers, refugees, stateless individuals, victims of human trafficking, unaccompanied children, and migrants in irregular situations. The men, woman, and children traveling in this way often have been forced from their homes due to armed conflict or persecution, poverty, climate change, or a quest for a better life. Although they may have different nationalities, routes, genders, backgrounds, conditions, and reasons for being where they are, there are numerous commonalities and shared experiences. Some of these similarities include being willing to wait in transit, pay more, or take a more dangerous and perilous route to reach one’s goal. It is precisely in situations like these that the firmly entrenched ideas of two distinctive groups are challenged and complicated.

A Muddy Future

On August 20, 2015, the news platform Al Jazeera shook global media when they announced that they would no longer use the term ‘migrant’ to describe people crossing the Mediterranean.

“The umbrella term ’migrant’ is no longer fit for purpose when it comes to describing the horrors unfolding in the Mediterranean. It has evolved from its dictionary definitions to a tool that dehumanizes and distances, to a blunt invective. Deceased ‘migrants’ do not hold the same value for the media as other deceased individuals (…) Drowning disasters are moving further and further down the news agenda. We rarely speak about the deceased as individuals anymore. They are numbers,” explained Barry Malone, an online editor at AJ English.

According to Al Jazeera’s editorial leadership, the term migrant had become too politically charged, derogatory, and too simplistic to use in coverage. The otherwise intended neutral umbrella term ‘migrant’ is now polarizing and has almost become synonymous with the ‘economic migrant,’ who is only on a mission to “steal jobs and drain the West of employment and capital,” as Malone stated.

The heated debate as well as the political discourse on migration and refugees have contributed to the increased politicization of the terms. Politicians are more likely to use expressions like ‘real’ refugees and ‘illegal’ migrants. Many migrants I met in Tunisia had not fled from war, but, as in Samuel’s case, their crops had failed. Due to climate change and environmental degradation, drought had become increasingly widespread, making agriculture and fishing impossible. This was a crucial factor in them starting their journey, leading them to become migrants or refugees in North Africa. Perhaps, in a few years, we will call them climate refugees or climate migrants, statuses that currently are not protected under international conventions. This matter is intricate, and yet, an unwavering certainty persists: the years ahead hold the promise of heightened climate change, conflicts, and wars, propelling a surge of individuals in search of safety and labor, seeking to carve out improved livelihoods. In this complex interplay of places, labor, and ever-evolving environments the fate of individuals like Samuel is profoundly woven into the fabric of our collective choices.


Edwards, A. (11 July 2016). UNHCR viewpoint: ‘Refugee’ or ‘migrant’ – Which is right? Available at: (Accessed 27 May 2024).

Malone, B. (20 Aug 2015). Why Al Jazeera will not say Mediterranean ‘migrants.’ Al Jazeera. Available at: (Accessed 27 May 2024).