People on the Move

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Every day, all over the world, people make the most difficult decision of their lives; to leave their homes in search of a better life.

Throughout history, migration has been a fact of life. The reasons people migrate are varied and often complex. Some people move to new countries to improve their economic situation or to pursue their education (such as migrants). Others leave their countries to escape human rights abuses, such as torture, persecution, armed conflict, extreme poverty and even death (such as refugees and asylum seekers).

Their journey can be full of danger and fear. Some face detention when they arrive. Many face daily racism, xenophobia, and discrimination. They are uniquely vulnerable, without the usual support structures most of us take for granted.

Amnesty has been working with refugees and migrants for decades. From helping to prevent refugees being returned to be persecuted to protecting the most vulnerable migrants from being exploited and abused by their employers, traffickers and smugglers.

Around 1,700 refugees and migrants died trying to cross the Mediterranean in January-April 2015 alone. Ibrahim, aged 24 and from Mali, survived a shipwreck in February: “At around 7pm the boat started to lose air and fill with water,” he told us. “People began to fall into the sea. With each wave, two or three were taken away. We clung to a rope with water up to our bellies.” A cargo boat eventually rescued Ibrahim and the only other survivor at about 3pm the next day.

A crowded rubber dinghy is spotted in the open Mediterranean Sea by the cargo ship OOC Cougar, 5 February 2015. A crowded rubber dinghy is spotted in the open Mediterranean Sea by the cargo ship OOC Cougar, 5 February 2015.
People in a rubber dinghy are spotted by the cargo ship OOC Cougar in the open Mediterranean Sea, 5 February 2015. © PA/Photo: Opielok Offshore Carriers/dpa

The problem

Dangerous journeys

Thousands of people who make their way from Central America across Mexico every year are abducted, killed and raped.

In Europe, many refugees and migrants don’t even reach dry land, as a tightening of “Fortress Europe” means the only route in is by overcrowded and unseaworthy boats, run by traffickers who care little whether their passengers arrive. At least 3,500 people died making the crossing in 2014 alone. European governments are more concerned with keeping people out than saving lives.

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Migrant workers, vulnerable and without their usual support system, often end up being paid a pittance and are worked to the bone. Many cases we have seen amount to slavery. Some countries simply seem not to care enough to protect migrant domestic workers. For example, in countries such as Hong Kong and Indonesia, these workers suffer all sorts of abuse – including sexual violence and forced labour.

Qatar has come under fire for its negligence towards other migrant works too, despite promises to reform ahead of the 2022 football World Cup. Delays in wages, harsh and dangerous working conditions, poor living conditions and forced labour are still endemic. But hope endures, as epitomised by the 1,000 workers who travel every day from India to Saudi Arabia in the hope of a better life, only to be met with deception and exploitation.


The way migration issues are presented by politicians, public officials and the media has had a huge impact on how people view migrants. Migrants are often scapegoated by politicians or the media as “illegal immigrants”, “gate-crashers” – even “invaders” – who exploit host countries’ generosity. This creates the impression that migrants have no rights at all, and leads to racism and discrimination.

The positive benefits migrants bring with them, including skills, resources and diversity, rarely make the news. According to the World Bank, international migration is good because workers can move to places where they are most productive. And the money migrants send home to developing countries (known as ‘remittances’) is worth three times more than what governments spend on development aid – an estimated US$404 billion in 2013.

Amnesty is calling for

Migrants must

• Be protected from racist and xenophobic violence.
• Be protected from exploitation and forced labour.
• Not be detained for no legitimate reason or deported.
• Not be discriminated against.

Refugees must

• Not be forced to return to a country where they are at risk of human rights abuses.
• Be resettled when they are in a vulnerable situation.
• Not be discriminated against.
• Have access to work, be housed and be educated.
• Be allowed to move freely, and keep their own identity and travel documents.

Asylum-seekers must

• Be allowed to enter a country to seek asylum.
• Not be returned to a country where they would be at risk.
• Have access to fair and effective asylum procedures, and if they are returned to a country it must be done safely and with dignity.
• Have access to the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) if they need or want it.

The issue in detail

Who is a migrant?

A migrant moves around within their own country, or from one country to another, usually to find work, although there may be other reasons such as to join family. Some move voluntarily, while others are forced to leave because of economic hardship or other problems. People can migrate ‘regularly’, with legal permission to work and live in a country, or ‘irregularly’, without permission from the country they wish to live and work in.

Most international migrants live in Europe (72 million) followed by Asia (71 million) and North America (53 million).

Who is a refugee?

A refugee is a person who has fled their own country because they have suffered human rights abuses or because of who they are or what they believe in. Their own government cannot or will not protect them and so they are forced to seek international protection.

Who is an asylum seeker?

An asylum-seeker is someone who has left their country in search of international protection, but is yet to be recognized as a refugee.

The law

Regardless of how they arrive in a country and for what purpose, migrants, refugees and asylum-seekers’ rights are protected by international law:

• The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (Article 14), states that everyone has the right to seek and enjoy asylum from persecution in other countries.
• The 1951 UN Refugee Convention protects refugees from being returned to countries where they risk persecution.

Key Facts


More than 230 million people live outside the country they were born – that’s about 3% of the world’s global population.


There were an estimated 14.2 million refugees in the world at the end of 2013.


10 million people across the world are “stateless” - no country recognizes them as a national.


Around 33.3 million people have been forced to leave their homes, but stay within their own country (known as internally displaced people).

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