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‘Migrants’ or ‘refugees’? It’s the wrong question.

Here's how to help people fleeing to Europe.

- October 23, 2015
A lifeboat, filled with lifejackets, that was used to ferry migrants from Turkey to the Greek island of Samos. It is full with their lifejackets.
A lifeboat and lifejackets that were used in 2015 to ferry people from Turkey to the Greek island of Samos (cc) adamansel 52, via Flickr.

Editors’ note: In this archival piece, contributors Lamis Abdelaaty and Rebecca Hamlin explain why people fleeing their homeland don’t necessarily fit into legal definitions of “migrant” or “refugee” – and why that matters. Their analysis was originally published in the Washington Post in October 2015, in a year when over 1 million people sought asylum in Europe, hoping to escape conflicts in Syria, Afghanistan, and elsewhere.

Migrants” or “refugees?“ That’s the question preoccupying everyone from the BBC to John Oliver in 2015, as people continue to arrive by the thousands into Europe. As news outlets around the world grapple with this question, they almost all make the same mistake: They print definitions of each term from international law.

But consulting a dictionary won’t solve the problem.

International legal definitions aren’t like laws of physics, preexisting and unchangeable. Each term was born in a particular political moment, and is interpreted and applied in other contexts with different concerns. Understanding those definitions’ origins reveals that politics, not law, often determines who gets categorized as a refugee.

Refugee: how (and why) the West defined it in 1951

The term “refugee” was officially defined in international law by the 1951 Refugee Convention, led by Western countries driven by Cold War concerns. The Convention was intentionally limited, and originally meant to apply only to people in Europe who had been displaced by events occurring before 1951.

That is why the document adopts a very specific definition: A refugee is someone with a well-founded fear of persecution on the basis of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular group, or political opinion.

The prototypical refugee then was a Soviet dissident: someone who has been individually targeted and persecuted by his or her government.

That’s why the official Convention definition privileges certain reasons for moving over others. Someone fleeing civil war is not considered a refugee. Someone fleeing environmental change is not considered a refugee. Someone fleeing crushing poverty is not considered a refugee. A refugee is fleeing discriminatory or political persecution, full stop.

So does that definition apply to people arriving in Europe today?

It depends. Many of the people currently arriving in Europe had already escaped war by entering Turkey or Lebanon, but uprooted themselves again because of dire economic need. Technically, these people would not qualify for refugee status under the international legal definition.

Many people entering Europe do so because of experiences that would easily fit with the definition. But human beings move in mixed groups. Often those who are fleeing individual persecution and those who are escaping war or seeking better economic opportunities are literally in the same boat. Economically motivated migrants often feel that moving is a life or death decision. As a result, they are willing to take the same risks to get to Europe as are people fleeing persecution by an oppressive regime.

Migrant or refugee? It’s a misleading distinction.

Focusing on whether to call the people entering Europe “migrants” or “refugees“ is itself part of the problem. It reinforces the idea that people on the move can be divided neatly into one of two categories: migrant or refugee. Human beings in the real world defy such simplistic categorization. They move for a wide range of reasons that fall somewhere between the extremes of purely voluntary and unquestionably forced.

The terms “refugee” and “migrant,” in other words, don’t refer to preexisting fixed and natural distinctions like “day” and “night” or “electron” and “proton.” They are legal categories created at a certain historical and political moment — a moment very different from our own.

In practice and policy, the meanings of those terms have changed, expanding considerably since 1951. In 1967, because human rights advocates pushed Western nations to expand the definition, the international legal definition was expanded so that it could apply to people outside Europe and those persecuted after 1951.

Since then, Western states have resettled displaced people in large numbers fleeing Vietnam, Cambodia, Cuba, and Bosnia — all without assessing whether each individual fit the refugee definition.

And while the Convention definition does not include gender or sexual orientation persecution as grounds for refugee status, the UNHCR and advocates in receiving countries have worked to get states to offer refugee protection to people fleeing for those reasons.

As a result, we now have a global political and institutional structure that is far more universal, inclusive, and robust than was originally envisioned at the end of WWII.

Here’s the point: Political pressure can change the definition

But that is only true when advocates have successfully lobbied to broaden the rules. If a country has no incentive to offer asylum, it can and does deny refugee status by interpreting the Convention very narrowly. The United States, for example, has for decades narrowly defined “refugee” to deny the claims of Haitians, Guatemalans, Salvadorans, and Hondurans. It is politically easier to deny that our neighbors produce refugees than it is to admit large numbers of people on an ongoing basis.

As one of us, Rebecca Hamlin, argues in her recent book “Let Me be a Refugee,” the Western democracies that wrote the refugee definition interpret and apply it broadly only when they feel real political pressure to do so.

Since the interpretations have changed considerably over time, still more change is possible. However, when we treat the Refugee Convention as a static document that exists in a vacuum, we erase the fact that the categories are inherently political.

Yes, awakening people to what terms we use is a great first step. But the focus should be on assisting people, whether or not they will eventually qualify for formal refugee status.

Advocates pushing for people to be called refugees as opposed to migrants may be inadvertently legitimating that distinction. They may succeed in influencing the media, but that won’t broaden the legal definition or lessen the excruciating wait times for processing refugee applications.

Those who want to protect people in need might achieve more by pushing for policies that assist desperate people — whether or not they qualify for refugee status in the West.

Lamis Abdelaaty is assistant professor of political science at the Maxwell School of Syracuse University. She is writing a book about state responses to refugees. 

Rebecca Hamlin is assistant professor of political science and legal studies at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. She is the author of “Let Me be a Refugee: Administrative Justice and the Politics of Asylum in the United States, Canada, and Australia” (Oxford University Press, 2014).