Analysis/Editorials, 12 December 2007
In the case of the man on the cover of this magazine, at the moment when the picture was taken, the question was irrelevant. Whoever he is, he deserved to be saved – precisely what the coast guards were trying to do after a boat of would-be migrants overturned off the coast of Spain, drowning several of its occupants including two pregnant women.
However, once he was safely on shore, the question of whether he was a refugee or a migrant may well have come immediately to the fore.
As a refugee, fleeing persecution or armed conflict, he would have been entitled to "international protection" in an asylum country – in this case most probably Spain. On the other hand, if he was someone moving for financial reasons – to earn a better living than he could at home – then he would be classified as an economic migrant, and would quite likely be sent back to his home country.
This is a judgement that many countries around the world make in varying numbers of individual cases every day.
Sometimes the decision is relatively straightforward, and sometimes it is an extremely difficult call to make. There are countries that produce lots of economic migrants, and very few refugees. But they do produce some, and it is the job of asylum adjudicators to spot them. There are asylum seekers without documents who are refugees, and there are asylum seekers with valid travel documents who are most definitely not. There are people who articulate a false story well, and people who articulate a true story badly – or not at all (because it is too painful and too personal).
And there is a grey zone: people who are leaving a country where persecution and discrimination are unquestionably occurring, and the economy is also dire. Are people leaving such countries for refugee reasons, or economic ones – or do both sets of reasons fuse into one that is, in many cases, almost impossible to unravel?
And what about the people who leave their country for refugee reasons, and then keep on moving for economic ones (so-called 'secondary movers')? Whether or not their onward movement is justified may depend on what lies between their country of origin and the country where they eventually make their asylum claim.
There is, of course, nothing new about people moving. Migrations of people for both refugee and non-refugee reasons have been taking place since before the beginning of recorded time. And if we were to trace our ancestors back far enough, all of us would find that we originated somewhere else.
Nor should voluntary migration – economic or otherwise – necessarily be viewed as negative (even though it is usually seen that way). Migrants often fill the gaps in the workforce, rather than take other workers' jobs – but they still make the perfect scapegoat for a society's ills, and their contribution is often hidden or ignored.
The linked issues of migration and asylum are probably more widely debated (and confused) today than ever before: perhaps because the number of people on the move has increased; perhaps because the planet – or certain countries on it – feel overcrowded; perhaps for a host of other reasons, both real and imagined.
And, as the 21st century progresses, it is likely to become even more complicated, with more people forced – one way or another (war, economics, climate change) – to pull up their roots and move somewhere else.
Over 200 million people are believed to be living outside their original homeland already. Relatively few of them are refugees. But, yes – taking the trouble to find out which ones are does still matter.
To undermine the system that identifies a refugee, and prevents him or her from being sent home, would in some cases be like the coastguards in the cover photo cutting the rope instead of hauling it in. It should be unthinkable – and it is unthinkable, when one looks at asylum seekers and refugees as individual human beings.
But when they are reduced to statistics, and described in pejorative terms such as 'floods,' 'waves,' 'unstoppable tides' (and other watery metaphors that bear a certain tragic irony given the number of would-be refugees and migrants who drown), they are all too easy to cast aside and ignore.
Source: Refugees Magazine Issue 148: "Refugee or Migrant – Why It Matters" (December 2007).