Refugees or migrants?

By Jesper Bjarnesen

In recent weeks, a new surge of media reports on the arrival of fishing boats from the western and northern coasts of Africa to Spanish and Italian islands in the Mediterranean Sea have reminded us of the ongoing tragedy of African migrants who risk their lives looking for better opportunities in Europe. In addition to the overwhelming humanitarian needs of those who survive the perilous journey and arrive at a detention centre along the Mediterranean coast, politicians, legislators, state administrations, and political activists are all involved in an unacknowledged struggle over words on their behalf.

Migrant or refugee? What should we call someone who has crossed the sea in a fishing boat and arrives in Lampedusa without any identification papers or other legal documents? In press coverage and political debates, these two words are often used interchangeably. Recently, the word “refugee” has been used to refer to all those arriving at Lampedusa, for example in a report by Swedish Radio, stating that “many refugees come from the war in Syria or from poor countries in Africa”. Why do these words matter?

In international humanitarian law, there are important legal differences between a migrant and a refugee. The difference is specified by the UNHCR who use the legal definitions as the basis of their own humanitarian interventions: “Migrants, especially economic migrants, choose to move in order to improve their lives. Refugees are forced to flee to save their lives or preserve their freedom”. Although the UNHCR provides initial humanitarian relief assistance to all those who are brought to shore, the distinction is crucial for an individual’s options while on EU soil. A refugee may apply for asylum, while an economic migrant may apply for a work or residence permit.

The UNHCR now uses the term “mixed migration” to describe situations where refugees and migrants use the same routes and means of transport for their movements, as is the case in the current crisis on the Mediterranean. And the main task of the EU and its individual member states consists in untangling this “mix”, and verifying who is, legally speaking, a migrant and who qualifies for refugee status.

In contemporary qualitative research on migration this clear-cut distinction is far from obvious. To many economic migrants, leaving home is the last option available. As Danish anthropologist Hans Lucht forcefully stated in The New York Times last year, “They know the risks. The tragedy is that they put their lives on the line because they feel they have no other choice”. In my own research in Côte d’Ivoire and Burkina Faso, refugee and labour migration intertwine as labour migrants were forced to flee “back home” to Burkina Faso during the civil war in Côte d’Ivoire. Much low-skilled labour migration is about the loss of the freedom to live and work at home.

This is why the current tendency to use the term refugee for all those “in the mix” of the current crisis may be said to acknowledge the involuntary side of this form of labour migration – and also the suffering and risk involved in venturing out on the journey across the sea. The problem, though, is that when we use the term “refugee” as a catch-all term, it translates into a political discussion over quota refugees that only affects the minority which qualifies for the legal category of “refugee”. In the question “What should be done to help the refugees in Lampedusa?” the legal and the sympathetic meaning of the term refugee tends to overlap, leaving the majority of economic migrants out of the discussion.

Another problem in using the term “refugee” is that the idea that refugees are helpless, passive, victims that are best kept in camps until they can return home misrecognises the intentions and aspirations of many of those who make it across the sea. Even those fleeing the armed conflict in Syria. It is a convenient image that allows us all to make decisions and form opinions without taking the voices of the so-called “refugees” into account. How often do we hear statements from those rescued at sea? More often than not, what we hear are the reactions of Europeans witnessing the arrivals or involved in their administration, for example from the mayor of Lampedusa in the current crisis.

Characterizing all people arriving to Lampedusa and other detention centres along the Mediterranean coast as “refugees” contributes to a public debate in which those who will eventually be legally categorized as economic migrants (and stand little chance of receiving any form of assistance) are made invisible while a relative minority of those who are entitled to claim official refugee status set the agenda. If public interest in the ongoing tragedy of the many people who risk, and lose, their lives in search of better opportunities in Europe is not deemed newsworthy, then journalists and politicians should at least have the decency to be clear about the share of people they are interested in acknowledging, and potentially assisting.

By using the overwhelming numbers of destitute arrivals at Lampedusa to highlight a humanitarian crisis in Syria that is already receiving international humanitarian attention, the silenced majority are reduced to extras in a sadly familiar humanitarian enactment of uncommitted sympathy.

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