Migrant or Refugee? The Limits of Definitions

The separation between “refugees” and “migrants,” between “economic” and “humanitarian” protection, demonizes the term “migrant” and fails to address the developmental needs of refugees. As advocates call for development and humanitarian assistance to go hand-in-hand, we assess the current definitions.

Written by Preethi Nallu Published on Read time Approx. 7 minutes

For most of the past decade the recurring seasons of Mediterranean migration were fairly predictable. Warm weather signaled the peak months of arrivals by sea, while cold periods meant respite for humanitarian workers and state border patrol guards, who are obliged, at least in principle, to rescue all those in distress at sea.

But 2016 has already broken all records – with no semblance of predictability. A larger number of arrivals and a higher number of deaths compared to the same period last year, together with further border closings along the Balkan route, have created an ominous start.

This year appears poised to challenge our use of the word “unprecedented,” which became a popular reference for the more than 1 million people who entered Europe over the past year.

In the face of unceasing waves of migration, humanitarian organizations and host governments have reacted with woefully poor levels of support. The glaring gaps in humane reception and protection of asylum seekers, including minors, have brought important questions to the fore.

Are international laws originally created to cope with never-before-seen displacement from World War I and World War II still valid? By sticking to the Refugee Convention, is the international community limiting itself in addressing the needs of those fleeing conflict, violence and instability? By separating the economic needs of migrants from the humanitarian protection of refugees, are we weakening both groups?

Research and realities have proven that the driving causes of forced migration are linked and often inextricably bound to each other. For instance, an underage economic migrant from Nigeria might become a trafficking victim along the route, thus qualifying as a “vulnerable person” in need of asylum. On the other hand, a Syrian who flees conflict may later become an impoverished, undocumented migrant in a transit country due to years of unemployment and an expired status.

While the E.U. and U.N. agencies continue to resort to tiered, nationality-based systems to process those arriving in Greece and Italy, some argue that black and white definitions have not helped.

Given the expanding gray areas in the conditions and experiences of people who are forced to migrate, media outlets, advocacy groups and aid agencies are confronted with weighing the value judgments and connotations carried by the different terms. Those who have worked toward refining definitions and expanding rights and laws would agree that such introspection is crucial, especially now. But doggedly excluding certain definitions and blindly espousing others might worsen the plight of the people these classifications are supposed to empower.

Following the summer months of 2015, when arrivals on Greek islands and across the Balkan route peaked, Al Jazeera English published an editorial on its website, denouncing the word “migrant.” “Migrant is a word that strips suffering people of a voice. Substituting ‘refugee’ for it is – in the smallest way – an attempt to give some back,” argued online editor Barry Malone.

“There is no migrant crisis in the Mediterranean,” he stated.

Migrants’ rights advocates such as Judith Vonberg, who have called for the “reclamation of the term migrant,” strongly oppose such for-or-against statements.

“Those [migrants] who are forced to change continents, leave or uproot their families and face a treacherous journey in that search are deserving of our respect, even our compassion. But again, Malone, along with much of the British media, denies them this,” wrote Vonberg in a scathing criticism of the op-ed.

The U.N. and many aid agencies also insist on separating “people of concern” from migrants.

The U.N. Agency for Refugees (UNHCR) has been vocal in differentiating between “refugees,” who are the main beneficiaries of its protection, and “migrants.” According to the organization, migrants, unlike refugees, “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. Unlike refugees who cannot safely return home, migrants face no such impediment to return.”

Try saying that to an Eritrean minor escaping a lifetime of military service or an Afghan fleeing persecution by the Taliban – both groups that often do not automatically qualify for asylum based on standard definitions – say advocacy groups.

While organizations like Amnesty International differentiate between migrants and refugees, they are “also pushing for governments to acknowledge that many so-called migrants are actually refugees who are entitled to protection, and to tackle the world’s unprecedented refugee crisis by providing people with safe, legal ways to seek sanctuary.”

Pointing to the artificiality of legal demarcations between “political refugees” and “economic migrants,” economist and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Amartya Sen points out that it is no coincidence that so-called economic migrants are often escaping repressive regimes.

Using the experience of the Irish populations that fled starvation and death during the Great Famine of the 1840s as an example, Sen claims that “we can perceive ‘cracks’ in the orthodox veneer of the political versus economic distinction,” but that refugee laws are still at a “very preliminary stage” of addressing the shortcomings.

Vonberg, on the other hand, argues that the UNHCR definition not only reinforces the dichotomy of “good refugee” and “bad migrant,” but also “gives credence to the illiberal voices telling us that migrants are not worthy of our compassion.”

In practice, the humanitarian sphere has suffered from the shortsightedness of such blanket separation between the terms, says researcher Katy Long.

“In a climate of public hostility towards migration in general, preserving space for refugee protection is thus seen by many NGOs and refugee advocates as dependent upon separating refugees from migrants,” explains Long, in her research paper for the Migration Studies journal at Oxford University.

By confining refugees to groups only in need of safe havens and humanitarian assistance, Long explains that most refugees now “qualify for protection only by virtue of the absence of any explicit economic aspirations.”

Historians also point out that the specific context of World War II that triggered the need for international refugee protection is no longer sufficient, given today’s diverse causes of displacement and eclectic groups of asylum seekers.

While 1951, the year when the U.N. Refugee Convention was developed, is often treated as year zero when discussing refugee laws, even earlier methods “demonstrated a more holistic, development focused approach to ‘solving’ refugee crises than many contemporary strategies do,” argues Long.

This was a period when “migrant” was simply an umbrella term, while a “refugee” was a specific type of migrant with humanitarian needs. Neither term excluded the economic aspects of integrating people moving to new countries, many of whom arrive impoverished, either because of being displaced from their homes or forking out their life savings to make the clandestine journeys.

Professor Alexander Betts, who runs the Humanitarian Innovation Project, calls for a more pragmatic approach to integrating refugees that offers them freedom of movement and livelihood opportunities.

Treat refugees as a development issue, he said in a comment for the BBC.

“The real challenge is not how we stop people coming to Europe. It is how we create innovative and sustainable global models of refugee assistance,” he writes. Drawing on his research on Uganda, where 96 percent of refugee households have independent means of income, Betts points to the long-term yields of freedom of movement.

Refugees can become self-reliant when they are not physically and legally constrained, according to those like Betts who have been advocating progressive economic models to host countries. Many such as Lebanon, Greece and Kenya will remain natural frontiers to migration due to their geography and regional instabilities.

Making the terms “migrant” and “refugee” mutually exclusive and separating the economic needs from asylum needs has had an obvious negative impact on people fleeing conflict.

Those like Long, who writes that “the extent of separation between refugee protection and migration has in fact proved to be counter-productive,” point to economic “warehousing” of refugees in temporary settlements without substantial rights to employment as a driving reason for accelerated flows across the Mediterranean.

For instance, a majority of Syrian refugees have received years of humanitarian aid and emergency services without economic and development support that would have bolstered their long-term stability and independence. Syrians who fled to neighboring countries, with a majority living in Lebanon, Turkey and Jordan, are now impoverished.

Due to years of social exclusion and a lack of formal schooling, children and young adults are coerced into becoming part of the “lost generation.” It is a term that Syrian youths have come to loathe – and understandably so, as the international community and host governments have not allowed them to restart their lives. Many feel that they have been forced into destitution.

The majority of the 4.2 million registered Syrian refugees in the Middle East and North Africa have not been able to access a life of dignity. So they have been traveling in large numbers to Europe in search of better futures and economic stability.

The impact of ignoring the social and economic integration of refugees, who are indeed migrants with specific needs, has also resulted in impoverished refugee ghettos within cities and disenfranchised communities living on the fringes of societies in remote settlements and slums. In such protracted situations, the lines between survival, stability and economic need bleed into each other. They must be addressed and met simultaneously.

Aid without development results in refugees who are vulnerable to abuse and manipulation by employers, smugglers and the black market. Lebanon’s highly restrictive residency rules, for example, have led to further exploitation and abuse of refugees, according to Human Rights Watch reports.

Fridtjof Nansen, responsible for the first ever refugee travel documents, would have frowned at the reactions of European leaders to the current waves of mixed migration. As the High Commissioner for Refugees for the League of Nations, Nansen found solutions for European nations that were economically devastated by World War I and receiving large number of refugees, well before the 1951 Refugee Convention was born.

The difference today is that Europe is better equipped and has a more evolved humanitarian framework. But the restrictive labels and laws have contributed to an underwhelming response from Europe, although incoming asylum seekers constitute less than 0.5 percent of its total population. Nansen’s work, which won him a Nobel Peace Prize, is proof that states receiving large-scale migration can be both humane and pragmatic.

“Poverty is not just the lack of money; it is not having the capability to fully realize one’s potential as a human being,” says Sen. Along the same vein, millions of asylum seekers who are highly constrained in their economic, social and educational rights feel they have been made poor.

Top image: A refugee woman is pushed while waiting with others to receive food packages provided by humanitarian workers, in a makeshift camp at the northern Greek border. (AP Photo/Boris Grdanoski)

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