The Problem with Migrants vs. Refugees.

In the past few days, since the UK population became abruptly aware of the horrendous conditions facing people on the borders of Europe, political friends and foes have stressed distinctions between migrants and refugees. I have found the focus on and articulation of this distinction divisive and counterproductive, and hope to express why.

The distinction that has been shared about on social media goes something like this:

Migrant: Someone who would like to move somewhere else to improve their quality of life.

Refugee: Someone who has been forced to move somewhere else, e.g. to escape war, persecution, or natural disaster.

Let me say first that I understand that the term ‘refugee’ has a particular and distinct meaning in international law, and in particular in the Geneva Convention on Refugees. I don’t contend that there is no value in having these two terms, or that there are not substantial differences in motivations for movement between nations, but I am concerned about the context, timing and emphasis of the distinction, and of the consequences.

Refugees are people who migrate because their quality of life is so bad, to the point where it could result in the loss of life, that the desire to improve that quality is steeped in desperation and necessity. But it is a quality of life issue, and so the distinction between ‘migrant’ and ‘refugee’ rests on the nature and evaluation, to use the language of the UK government, of the ‘push-factor’.

In some cases, we may find it easy to distinguish between a refugee and a migrant by a cursory glance at the factors contributing to their desire to move, and in others we may not find that distinction so easy to make. The distinction is not an absolute one, there is blurring, there is grey, there will be differing interpretations and perspectives, not least between those already living in relatively safe countries and those trying to reach them. It concerns me that by emphasising distinctions between migrants and refugees as if these were absolutely separate categories, a stark binary arises that leads to us to treat all people who would want to enter the UK as one of either: ‘The Deserving Refugee’, recipient of pity and charity, or ‘The Undeserving Immigrant’, recipient of distrust and scorn.

The Undeserving Immigrant is a well-developed character in the column inches of the British Press and in the rhetoric of mainstream high-profile politicians. They are selfish, out for what you have, and not unlikely to hate you and pose a significant risk to your wellbeing. I worry that well-intentioned people are inadvertently buying into, or at least perpetuating, a belief in and hostile attitudes toward ‘The Undeserving Immigrant’, by pitching them against the ‘Deserving Refugee’.

I can see the rationale:

  1. There are millions of people in dire need of immediate assistance, but years of conditioning that have left a large proportion of the population instinctively hostile and suspicious of people arriving in the UK from overseas.
  2. That widespread hostility and suspicion risk delaying and blocking the assistance to refugees that is needed.
  3. By attempting to decouple the Deserving Refugee from the fabled Undeserving Immigrant, maybe we can circumvent the well-developed prejudices that are a barrier to us extending solidarity to those who most need it right now.

I think that’s the logic. But we need to proceed with extreme caution.

By sacrificing ‘migrants’ for the benefit of refugees, we risk making the problem worse. Firstly, who gets to decide who is a migrant and who is a refugee? Predominantly it will be a right-wing political establishment and bureaucrats following racist immigration policies, with undue influence from a reliably hostile and reactionary British Press. How should we expect these groups to utilise absolute distinctions between migrants and refugees? Which side of the line are they most likely to put people? How many desperate people will be implicitly defined as Undeserving Immigrants because politicians, state agencies and the press declare them to not meet their imposed criteria for bona fide refugee status?

These are not abstract questions, they can be answered with reference to the past and present – for example, by reminding ourselves that despite a high profile campaign to save him, Glasgow student Majid Ali was deported to Pakistan two months ago and to the best of my knowledge has not been heard of since. And by reminding ourselves that Aylan Kurdi, the three year-old boy photographed dead on Turkish a beach earlier this week, who died along with his five year-old brother and mother, was recently denied refugee status by the Canadian government. National governments controlled by a capitalist class will always tend to narrowly categorise people by their value to that class. Humane decision making will seldom follow; relegations to the status of Undeserving Migrant will.

By accepting a binary of the Deserving Refugee and the Undeserving Immigrant, we risk, no, we ensure, that some refugees will be declared undeserving and treated with the contempt and inhumanity that we have come to see as normal. Some of them will end up dead on beaches; more will end up dead or otherwise suffering beyond the scope of photographers’ lenses, and the fleeting concerns of populations in the West.

But the way we approach the refugee vs. migrant distinction is problematic on a more fundamental level. Even putting reactionary, nationalistic, capitalist authorities aside, how could we possibly expect people who have only ever known relative safety and comfort in the UK to make informed, balanced, fair assessments of the needs and motivations of people whose shoes they have never occupied? More explicitly, what on earth gives wealthy white Europeans the moral right to make judgements about where others can and cannot live? Intelligent civilised Westerners making clear and informed decisions on behalf of the barbarians at the gate? Oh dear.

We rightly condemn right-wing rhetoric that seeks to distinguish between the deserving and undeserving poor, but appear to be playing into an amplified version of that same binary, and accepting it so long as the people are arriving from overseas. It is surely not your or my call to make, whether someone feels safe in their country of origin, or whether they should live there. Why would it be? If that isn’t a brazen theft of agency, I don’t know what is. Is it so radical to suggest that as a general rule if someone wants to move from one part of the earth to another, for whatever reason, for they themselves will understand and own that reason better than anyone else, then they should be able to?

Let’s be absolutely clear: the inhabitants of the UK have done precisely diddle to ‘deserve’ to live here. The concept of ‘deserving’ to live somewhere is absurd. You and I do live here, we’re extraordinarily fortunate to do so, and ‘deserving’ just doesn’t come into it. I’d like to remain here for the foreseeable future, but there is no justifiable reason why you or I should have a veto on someone else doing the same. If someone genuinely believes that the arrival of another person to the UK will leave us hopelessly over-crowded and under-resourced, I would politely invite them to resolve the situation by leaving. Yes, yes, we’ve paid our taxes, and maybe you or, even more tenuously, your family members, fought in a war or something, but that doesn’t give us the right to control the lives of other people who mean us no harm. I imagine that if tomorrow a disastrous event were to render the British Isles an uninhabitable wasteland, then those who previously enjoyed luxury on the back of reinforced arbitrary borders would come to realise just how arbitrary they are.

While I think I understand the tactic of drawing distinctions between migrants and refugees at this moment in time, we ought really to be speaking and acting on principle, not least because of the unintended consequences that will otherwise follow. That principle? That people should be treated with dignity and respect, and that this should include respecting their freedom to live on whichever part of the planet they wish. Yes, we want the UK government to allow more refugees into the UK, but surely the call should be an inclusive and not a divisive one. Surely it should be a demand that empowers people, not that empowers reactionary forces to make judgements on the basis of racist policies and that seek to control people for the interests of profit. Surely the demands should be principled, clear, universalist and uncompromising:

End migrant detention
Stop deportations
Open the borders.

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