During the latter half of 2015, the news media has been awash in imagery of Syrians huddled en mass on small boats; risking their lives on treacherous Mediterranean crossings; hoping to find asylum somewhere in the West. Of all the images to have circulated far and wide, the one to have most galvanized the world is that of a dead child washed ashore on the coasts of Turkey; the victim of a nearby sinking.
The Difference Between Refugees and Migrants
As the crisis unfolds before the eyes of the world, a quandary looms: the difference between refugees and migrants. Even though the two terms are often perceived as synonymous, each carries a different set of legal ramifications. When conflated, the application of one word or the other can lead to errors in paperwork that will sometimes have dire consequences for the people in question. All of which begs the question this sample essay asks: what are the distinctions between a migrant and a refugee?
Migrant: A relocated worker
A migrant is a person who moves around from one place to another—both domestically and abroad—to do temporary seasonal work. There are many different reasons for why migrants choose to leave their hometown for work; some seek better opportunities in a more economically prosperous city, state, or country, while others relocate to be near loved ones. People who hail from volatile places will often migrate to avoid persecution or tyranny; it’s cases like these that invite confusion with the word refugee.
Though the word migrant used to be applied free of connotations, it’s become the focus of controversy amid a rising trend of seemingly negative uses. As the Syrian crisis broke into the headlines this past summer, Al Jazeera editor Barry Malone said that the thousands fleeing the Middle East nation would no longer be referred to as migrants on his network because the word “has become a largely inaccurate umbrella term for this complex story,” (Smith).
Confusion has also surfaced between the word migration—which refers to the act of moving from one state or region to another within the same country—and the word immigration, which refers to the act of moving to a different country. According to 2013 stats from the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), roughly 232 million people around the world have recently lived in countries other than their nations of origin (“Migration”).
Refugee: A displaced person
A refugee is someone who flees their home country in order to avoid repressive laws, conscription, social/political strife, and destructive natural forces such as volcanoes, earthquakes, and cyclones. According to the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, a refugee is anyone who is outside his or her country of origin, and is unwilling to return, due to a “well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion,” (Smith).
The last few years has witnessed a mass exodus of unprecedented levels from various war-torn countries in parts of Africa, Asia, the Middle East, and the former Eastern Bloc. As 2015 got underway, regional infighting had displaced approximately 59.5 million people; that figure marked a one-third increase over the mid-noughties global refugee count of 37.5 million (Smith).
Consequently, the death toll at sea has also swelled as more people brave treacherous waters in hopes of sailing to better lands. During 2015 alone, an estimated 2,000 displaced Syrians who sought refuge overseas wound up perishing in the Mediterranean (Smith).
Asylum seeker: A hopeful Émigré
When a refugee formally applies for asylum in a country foreign to his or her origin, that person is classified as an asylum seeker for as long as it takes to process the application. When applications are refused, the applicants are usually either asked to return to their home country, or returned by force. In many cases, however, it simply isn’t safe for an asylum seeker to return to his or her home country; at least not until the current turmoil—whether it centers on religious persecution, war, draconian anti-gay laws, or various other forms of oppression—comes to an end.
Untold number of refugees who’ve either been refused or have failed to find representation in the asylum-seeking process have taken alternate/illegal routes to move to another country, including the use of fake passports and IDs. However, such actions could jeopardize any legal attempts to naturalize into a new country if the refugee in question gets caught living and working illegally in a foreign land.
Asylum seeker stats: Where they come from; where they’re headed
According to data compiled by Eurostat (“File:Countries of origin”), the five nations to have spawned the highest counts of asylum-seeking refugees during 2014 were as followers:
- Syria – 122,115
- Afghanistan – 41,370
- Kosovo – 37,895
- Eritrea – 36,925
- Serbia – 30,840
Out of those nations, the two with the highest increase in residents seeking foreign asylum were Syria and Eritrea, whose respective numbers jumped 144.3 percent and 154.9 percent over 2013 figures (“File: Countries of origin”).
According to further Eurostat data (Arnett), the five EU nations to have received the most asylum-seeking applicants during 2014 were as follows:
- Germany – 202,815
- Sweden – 81,325
- Italy – 64,625
- France – 64,310
- Hungary – 42,775
The above figures represented a 45.2 percent rise from the previous year’s number of asylum seekers (“File: Countries of origin”).
The debate over terminology
The difference in meaning between the words refugee and migrant is critical due to the disparity in rights granted to each classification. Put simply, refugees are usually granted basic protections and political asylum in their adopted countries, whereas migrants can be deported with little in the way of due process. With certain groups of displaced people from Africa and Asia, definitions of the two words might overlap due to a combination of factors, such as refugees who’ve fled impoverished and oppressive situations, but whose lives would not necessarily be in jeopardy back home.
Advocacy groups have accused governments in the EU of mislabeling refugees as migrants in order to avoid taking responsibility for the thousands of displaced people pouring westward each year. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) argues that by conflating the two words, governments are placing the lives of refugees in the balance. As stated on the agency’s website, blurring
“the two terms takes attention away from the specific legal protections refugees require,” and potentially undermines these people’s “asylum at a time when more refugees need such protection than ever before,” (Edwards).
The UNHCR and likeminded advocates are quick to point out how in western countries, natives are typically unable to distinguish the various social plights—poverty and famine vs. war and persecution—that cause others to flee their homelands. In Germany, for instance, arguments have waged as to whether Serbians deserve the same degree of asylum as Syrians; the common perception being that conditions for the latter group are far more unbearable back home.
The United Kingdom’s handling of refugees
David Cameron has taken flak for supposedly viewing the UK’s role in tending to the Syrian refugee crisis as a strictly legal—as opposed to moral—obligation. UN migration representative Peter Sutherland has argued that the island nation is duty bound to take up refugees on humanitarian ground, and further praised the compassion of the British people, one in three of whom has pitched into crisis relief efforts between August and September (Dathan).
The EU recently agreed to spread 120,000 refugees throughout Europe, but the UK refrained from obligating itself to a share of the balance (Dathan). Certain nations on the continent disapproved of the EU’s decision, including Hungary, Czech Republic, and Romania, all of which will nonetheless be forced to accommodate a percentage of displaced Syrians.
Addressing the dissension towards the EU’s move, Sutherland stressed that crisis relief is about human responsibility, not legality, and further touted the need for common policies because, in his words, it’s
“a question of solidarity when there are huge disparities in the numbers being taken by different states in the European Union,” (Dathan).
REgarding the crisis in Syria, As Cameron and the EU quarrel over the UK’s decision to limit its Syrian refugee threshold to 20,000 over the next half decade, the nation is gearing up for the influx. According to research gathered by the Charities Aid Foundation, roughly two million British households are willing to lend a room to a displaced Syrian (Dathan).
The United States: scaling up for an influx of refugees
In the United States, where 70,000 refugees are accepted each year, less than 1,500 Syrians have been offered refuge in recent months. The Syrian crisis has been a thorny issue in the US, where it’s been harder to resettle refugees from volatile parts of the Middle East in the years since 9/11. Nonetheless, as Washington fields more referrals from the UNHCR, the Obama Administration has called for a scaling up on the number of Syrian refugees accepted into the US. On Sept. 10, the White House said that 10,000 Syrians would be accepted stateside over the coming fiscal year (Koran et al.)
Smith, Lydia. “What is the difference between a migrant, a refugee and an asylum seeker?” International Business Times. IBTimes Co., Ltd. 3 Sept. 2015. Web. 25 Sept. 2015.
“Migration.” UNFPA. United Nations Population Fund. n.d. Web. 26 Sept. 2015.
Arnett, George. “Which EU countries had the most asylum seekers?” The Guardian. Guardian Media Group. 11 May 2015. Web. 26 Sept. 2015.
Edwards, Adrian. “UNHCR viewpoint: ‘Refugee’ or ‘migrant’ – Which is right?” UNHCR. The UN Refugee Agency. 27 Aug. 2015. Web. 26 Sept. 2015.
“File:Countries of origin of (non-EU) asylum seekers in the EU-28 Member States, 2013 and 2014.” Eurostate. Eurostat. n.d. Web. 26 Sept. 2015.
Dathan, Matt. “UN migration representative criticises David Cameron for failing to recognise difference between legal and moral obligations.” The Independent. Independent Print Ltd. 23 Sept. 2015. Web. 25 Sept. 2015.
Koran, Laura; Elise Labott; Jim Acosta; and Deirdre Walsh. “U.S. to take at least 10,000 more Syrian refugees.” CNN Politics. Turner Broadcasting System, Inc. 10 Sept. 2015. Web. 25 Sept. 2015.