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It’s Time to Stop Compartmentalizing Refugees and Migrants

While the legal distinction between refugees and migrants is vital, these categories often overlap in reality – a fact poorly reflected in aid programs. Lucy Hovil and Melissa Phillips argue that an integrated approach is possible without diluting protection.

Written by Lucy Hovil, Dr. Melissa Phillips Published on Read time Approx. 4 minutes
Children stand in the doorway of a container being used as a home at the migrant and refugee camp of Eleonas in Athens on February 24, 2018. ANGELOS TZORTZINIS/AFP/Getty Images

The division between refugee and migrant remains a powerful legal tool. But in today’s world of hypermobility, compartmentalization of international aid along the same lines is illogical and wasteful. Worse, it threatens to exclude many people from much-needed aid because their experiences don’t match strict criteria.

That is not to dispense with the term “refugee.” In this era of record levels of displacement and shrinking protection space, refugee status is crucial for maintaining focus on a specific legal category of people: those who can demonstrate credible fear of persecution. Yet realities on the ground have shown that refugees have multiple identities, deploy various coping strategies and often defy tidy categories.

The same can be said of migrants who move for multiple reasons and whose experiences often do not fit within neat groupings. When both refugees and migrants are on the move together, as in Turkey and Libya, labels and distinctions may matter less at certain times – for instance, when rescuing people at sea – but remain critical when trying to identify people in need of resettlement or return.

The tension here lies in the fact that, on the one hand, legal categories are crucial for protection. Any dilution of the definition of a refugee can easily become a political excuse to tighten borders. And yet, at a programmatic level, stark legal distinctions make less sense.

Rigidly adhering to these categories leads to an overreliance on policy-driven approaches. Instead, programs must function in the gray areas of overlapping legal and social identities. Binary categories – refugee and returnee; home and exile; migrant and forced migrant – are often inadequate in dealing with the complexity of reality.

We don’t have to choose – we need legal categories and flexibility in programmatic response. So what are the operational barriers in the way of a more integrated approach?

First, there is a schism in the aid sector itself, which is largely divided between people working on refugees and on migration. This is partly because refugee issues in the past landed more in the humanitarian basket, while migration was more aligned to development. There are separate agencies dealing with each group – the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in the case of refugees, and the International Organization for Migration (IOM) in the case of migrants – with no one supra-entity coordinating between them.

But with refugees and migrants often moving and staying together, maintaining programmatic silos is inadequate. It can also result in pitting “good” refugees against “bad” migrants. The arrival in Europe of large numbers of refugees and migrants challenged the logic that those groups could be dealt with separately. Yet many in the field acknowledge that the age-old tension between the U.N. agencies for refugees and migration contributes to this divide.

Second, there needs to be a broader discussion about mandated agencies and their responsibilities. Many were surprised when IOM was selected to lead the response to the arrival of over 600,000 Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh, partly as a result of the Bangladesh government insisting they are “undocumented migrants.” UNHCR was criticized for being slow to respond to the outflow of Syrian refugees into Europe. Both agencies are under pressure in many other emergencies from donors and partners.

Finally, the Global Compacts reflect this operational and policy divide; a wasted opportunity for a more innovative approach. The Global Compact on Refugees and Global Compact for Migration were initially conceived as part of the same global discussion, addressing interrelated challenges – the need for better protections for refugees and more orderly migration. Yet there has been a lack of coordination between these two compacts, with the result being separate instruments that do not speak to each other. The two processes have become increasingly siloed, echoing the long-standing debate over how to categorize people on the move.

As Jeff Crisp, former head of UNHCR’s Policy Development and Analysis Unit told us, “A truly progressive approach would have been to establish a ‘Global Compact on Human Mobility,’ which elaborated on the intimate connections between ‘refugees’ and ‘migrants’ as well as ‘forced’ and ‘voluntary’ movements of people. But it is much easier for states and international organizations to think in a binary manner, maintaining what in many contexts is an artificial categorization of people who are on the move.”

As the world negotiates two separate compacts on migrants and refugees, now is the time to think clearly about how these two categories relate – not to dilute them, but to strengthen them.

One need only look at the current situation in Greece as an example of people falling between the cracks. Clearly there is an urgent need to improve collective response to the needs of migrants and refugees at all levels – from host governments, donors and international organizations to implementing partners. Ensuring that all parties do what they are supposed to, and do it much better, also requires acknowledging that tension can exist at technical and operational levels.

Crucially, we must recognize that UNHCR and IOM are creatures of states and donors with different histories, mandates and structures. In brief, IOM is accountable to member states and UNHCR is heavily reliant on donor funds. Both organizations often compete for the same funding, and coordination structures that bring them together such as Mixed Migration Working Groups often operate on an ad hoc basis, for example, in Libya and the Horn of Africa.

The compact processes have also been negotiated far away from most migrants and refugees – a point being made by groups such as the Network for Refugee Voices. This top-down approach points to the reality that as soon as we disassociate from what is happening on the ground, convenience can all too easily trump sense.

Arguments for keeping migrants and refugees as distinct categories and arguments for merging them are both compelling. But maybe that is precisely the problem: We should not have to take sides. Categories can exist. In fact, they need to exist as a tool for protection. But at an operational level, the need for far greater coordination and flexibility has been thrown into sharp relief by the compact process – or rather, processes.

The views in this article belong to the authors and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Refugees Deeply.

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