Refugees are economic migrants

And that’s okay.

In the 19th century Jews were confined to the pale of settlement in the Russian Empire. Life was hard and they were poor, of course life was horrible for almost everyone in Russia but this was especially true for the Jews in the pale of settlement. From the 1880s these Jews suffered terrible pogroms, murderous riots encouraged, aided and enacted by the Russian state. Many Jews fled and ended up, by sea, landing in the UK seeking refuge.

Some British people responded by forming with a proto-fascist group called the British Brothers League who campaigned against immigrants. The British government responded to that with the Aliens Act of 1905 and for the first time Britain had border controls. The free movement of refugees from Russia slowed until the Aliens Act of 1914 effectively closed Britain’s door. A door that has never fully reopened.


Complaints then were similar to the complaints now about migrants crossing the Mediterranean. These people are not real refugees, real refugees wouldn’t come so far from home. They are not moving to escape violence but in search of a better life. They aren’t behaving like proper refugees.

And then, just like now, it is true. In the 19th century Jews didn’t hop across the Baltic to Sweden or Denmark, they aimed for the UK and America. Then too people traffickers were nasty people. Many Jews arrived in London thinking they were in New York having been promised a different trip than the one they received.

Then many Jewish refugees moved back and forth between Russia and the UK as the pogroms were ongoing. They didn’t do this because they weren’t at risk but because refugees have complicated lives. The young fled because they could, and if they could visit back when things looked safe to visit relatives they sometimes did. Sure this doesn’t match up with the classic idea of a refugee, but refugees are people first, refugees second.

Now people leaving Eritrea find themselves in Libya where they used to have a job. Now they’re waiting on a beach for a boat with a novice captain and hearing rumours (untrue they’ll soon find out) that Europeans are rescuing migrants at sea. They aren’t all what you’d think of as a classic refugee, they’re just someone putting one foot in front of another away from the terrible circumstances that drove them from home.

What I’m getting at is that few refugees match our ideals of refugeehood. Were Russia’s pogroms state sanctioned? I think so, but even if they were spontaneous would than make the pale’s Jews less deserving of refuge? Eritrea is a long way from Libya, yet that’s where people have found themselves because life is complicated, and none more so than that of refugees.


In retrospect we view Jews moving to London fleeing pogroms in Russia as archetypal refugees. But today people would ask “why aren’t you in Denmark?” Or “couldn’t you just pretend not to be Jewish?”


Every refugee finds themselves thinking “how do I improve my situation?” and the answer usually concerns safety, but often also concern economics. Jews moving to the US in the nineteenth century weren’t just seeking safety, they were seeking economic advantage and that is fine, good, and moral. Refugees today often make similar choices today, when they can and I think this is fine, good, and moral too. Economic considerations inform refguee movements and always have. Refugees need our help, but they are not helpless.

None of the people who have drowned in the Mediterranean this year intended to, they just put one foot in front of the other and made their choices as best as they saw fit. Some of their motivation was economic, some was for safety and some was to meet up with family or a 1001 other reasons. It has always been like this and it always will be.

There are no clear lines between refugees, economic migrants and expats other than the arbitrary ones we create ourselves. We create lines that allow Gary-in-Valencia54 to think that a Senegalese tailor has no business trying to reach Italy. That’s sad and I’ve seen some people emphasise that the people drowning are refugees, as though this creates a clearer, more moral framework for reaching out and offering support. I think that’s a bad strategy. Rather than reinforce these lines and single out the good refugee from the selfish economic migrant we need to recognise that these lines are blurred and always have been and we should embrace their blurring further.

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