On mobility labels: the ‘migrant’ vs. ‘refugee’ debate

Boat sinks in the Mediterranean. Source: www.telegraph.co.uk

Summer (in the Northern hemisphere) seems to bring a peak in international migration flows, and with it, the debate about labels takes over the media once and again.

Last year, the debate was centered around the plight of unaccompanied children from Central America making the dangerous journey to the border with the US to meet with their parents or families. At first seen as a migration crisis, it was then called a humanitarian crisis by US President Barack Obama and focus was shifted to the circumstances forcing parents to put their children through that difficult journey. Many of them were escaping violence related to gangs, drug-trafficking rings or crime back home (mainly El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala). Many others were following the path of their parents, who found better economic opportunities in the United States. The debate emerged: were they migrants or refugees?

The discussion was not just about labels, it had policy repercussions. Wether they are considered regular migrants, like the thousands that each year cross or try to cross the US border, or if they deserve the protection and rights that international law claims refugees should receive. Arguments in both ways emerged, and the political response was, in the end, mixed. Summer came to an end, and the situation of unaccompanied children stopped being news (though their struggle was far from over).

This year, as more and more people flee to Europe crossing the Mediterranean sea, all of them risking their lives to seek refuge or better living conditions, the debate returned.

By August 14, 237,000 people had reached Europe, surpassing the total for 2014, 219,000, according to the International Organization for Migration. An estimated 2,300 people died attempting the journey, and about 1,000 people per day had to be rescued off the shores of Italy and Greece, the main countries of destination. These figures represent a significant increase from previous years, as can be seen in the following graph updated on June 29:

Source: The Sea Route to Europe. UNHCR report, June 2015 http://www.unhcr.org/5592bd059.html#_ga=1.28125240.580561429.1421269596

The numbers are probably higher by now, August 22. By the end of the year, the organization expects the number to pass 300,000.

People are fleeing from Eritrea (passing through Libya), Nigeria, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, Gambia and Bangladesh. Sudan, Somalia and Nigeria. Most of these countries are facing violence or some kind of instability, according to the Council on Foreign Relations Global Tracker.

When the numbers started increasing a few months ago, media talked about the “Mediterranean migration crisis”, and many still do. In July, the UNHCR, the United Nations refugee agency, reported that a large majority of the people traveling to Europe’s shores were “fleeing from war, conflict or persecution.” This makes them “refugees” not just “migrants,” they said and called the media and other actors to refer to them accordingly. What we are facing is a “refugee crisis,” the agency stated.

Debate over the use of “refugees” or “migrants” to refer to this crisis heightened last week as Al Jazeera’s online editor Barry Malone published a piece explaining why the news organization was, from now on, sticking to the term refugee. Debate over mobility labels started once again.

To engage in the debate, let’s get the definitions clear first. According to the 1951 Convention a refugee is “a person who is outside his or her country of nationality or habitual residence; has a well-founded fear of being persecuted because of his or her race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion; and is unable or unwilling to avail him — or herself of the protection of that country, or to return there, for fear of persecution.” The UNCHR establishes that people who are in this situation need to apply to the government of the receiving country to get official refugee status and the rights and protection this should confer. While they are going through the process they are asymlum-seekers. The agency recognizes that when there are is a massive move of people it is difficult to verify the refugee status of each person, but, given the evidence of why they fled, they can be recognized as prima facie refugees.

There is no single definition of migrant. The UN has considers a migrant is “an individual who has resided in a foreign country for more than one year irrespective of the causes, voluntary or involuntary, and the means, regular or irregular, used to migrate.” It is generally understood that migrant’s decision to cross a border is voluntary, usually in search for better economic opportunities. There can also be other causes, like family reunification. Migration, meanwhile, refers to “the movement of a person or a group of persons, either across an international border, or within a State. It is a population movement, encompassing any kind of movement of people, whatever its length, composition and causes; it includes migration of refugees, displaced persons, economic migrants, and persons moving for other purposes, including family reunification,” also according to the UN.

A refugee is a type of migrant, but not all migrants are refugees. The fact that they are not recognized as refugees, however, does not imply that migrants face easy choices or go through safe journeys to cross borders, as the plight of so many migrants who die crossing the US-Mexico border shows. Furthermore, they might be escaping situations of hunger, local violence (which does not qualify as an armed conflict) or even persecution that might be hard to prove.

“Migrant is a word that strips suffering people of voice. Substituting it for refugee is — in the smallest way — an attempt to give some back,” Malone writes in his piece “Why Al Jazeera will not say Mediterranean ‘migrants’.” I disagree with this statement for several reasons.

First, migrants could also be suffering. Economic hardship has not been included as a reason for a person to become a refugee, but it could imply a risk to life, specially of minors, if there is no food to consume. They are probably not choosing the circumstances that they are subjected to back home, or see other option than to pay smugglers to make the trip to a safer place, where job opportunities exist. There has been talk about the term “economic refugee” over the last years to refer to people who are forced to leave their homes due to lack of jobs and resources.

Clearly, people risking their lives in precarious boats in the Mediterranean are escaping something worse than the dangers that await for them at sea. The decision, in many cases, might not be about where to live but about where to die: at home, seeing loved ones killed, their homes and cities destroyed, facing torture, bombs or other tortures, or drowning, starving or dehydrating to death at sea. The point is not to compare and measure who is going through more hardships.

Second, many migrants are also deprived from having their own voice, especially in the receiving countries. The Mexicans and Central Americans who irregularly go into the US are obviously not choosing to be called “illegals” or “rapists,” as Donald Trump referred to Mexicans immigrants a few weeks ago.

Furthermore, labelling people as refugees does not really give them a voice. It is not them who are asking to be called refugees, because their voices are barely being heard in this debate. Some aid organizations like Doctors Without Borders are documenting and publishing survivors’s testimonies, but these do not constitute the main narrative of the coverage.

Many may even argue that the name of that single category — refugee — turns them into total, helpless victims. Liisa Malikki would claim they now belong to “a sea of humanity,” where one person can not be distinguished from the other; Michel Agier would say that they are part of a large mass of “undesirables,” a problem for governments who now have to aid them. By being labelled they become the images we are so used to consuming from aid organizations, they are deprived from agency and of a voice, now having NGOs talk for them.

Even more concerning is the fact that the “refugee” label might not bring attached with it the protection and rights that it was created to guarantee. Most receiving countries are not able to cope with the influx of people, and though they are receiving shelter now in reception centers or refugee camps, durable solutions for this people will be hard to attain. The situation of the Dadaab refugee camp, operating now for more than 20 years, or the Syrian people at the Zaatari camp in Jordan show that the refugee denomination on its own is not enough. It does entail a series of responsibilities for receiving countries, who are committed through the Convention and Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees, but there is an enforcement issue.

In conclusion, in many contexts migrants face difficulties, struggles — economic or of other types — back home, on their journeys and in the receiving countries. The media and other actors should not be comparing and contrasting hardships and difficulties people face to see who should receive more attention or protection. They should shed light on situations where human lives are at risk, where human rights are being violated, and focus on the people, not the categories.

The debate should be moved away and beyond labels, especially when this do not imply inmediate policy changes. Universal human rights should be guaranteed for all — those on the move, those staying at home, those living in conflict zones, and those living abroad. The only label that should matter is the “human” label. Hopefully, some day that will be enough to ellicit action.

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