Why Do People Migrate? Part 1: Facts

Chapters 2 › Unit 2: SCROLL DOWN FOR INSTRUCTIONS View instructions Hide instructions


`Start by reading this article and discuss in your journal how current official definitions of "migrants", "refugees" and "asylum seekers" are challenged by the on-going migration crisis at the South-East borders of Europe.

You can also see Unit 2.1 for more information about irregular migration in Mediterranean region, Unit 2.2 about EU norms on asylum seeking, and Unit 2.3 on the case of Syrian refugees.

Don't forget to have a look to what others have done in their journals!

The migrant/refugee dichotomy and the complexity of today's world


The use of the terms "migrant" and "refugee" is at its highest level in the European public debate (press, social media, blogs, political discourse and campaigns as well as conversations and reactions among common citizens) , in consequence of the increasing movement of people who cross and desire to cross the South-East borders of Europe. The difference between the two terms has its roots in post WWII international law: the 1951 Refugee Convention defines a refugee as someone who, "owing to a well-founded fear of persecution for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinions, is outside the country of his nationality" and in need of protection while, although at international level there is not a universally accepted definition of migrant, the International Organization for Migration specifies in its terminology that the word "migrant" covers all cases where the decision to migrate is taken freely by the individual concerned, for reasons of personal convenience and without intervention of an external compelling factor.
However the dichotomy between refugee and migrant, involuntary and voluntary decision, obligation and choice, force majeure and persecution of a personal gain, seems to be no longer satisfactorily applicable to the complexity of migration in today's world:

  1. the reasons of migratory movements are blended and don't always fall easily and clearly into one of the two categories of migrant and refugee: people fleeing violence and persecution at the same time seek better economic and social prospects for them and their beloved ones, as showcased for instance, by those who escape from Syria, get into Greece but desire to continue their trip to Northern European countries, where they can find not only higher rates of adjudication of the status of refugee, but also stronger economy, labour market and social benefits. Similarly, people leave situations of poverty and deprivation but at the same time have experienced or risked to experience violence, repressions and persecutions;

  2. there are people on the move who fall into neither of the two categories: those who are forced to leave in consequence of natural disasters and environmental changes, food insecurity and modern forms of work slavery against which the fragile states they live in are not able to provide some sort of remedy . For these cases, Prof. Alexander Betts, Director of the Refugee Studies at the University of Oxford has developed the concept of "survival migration" (2013). Those people face serious right deprivations but do not fall under the existing definition of refugee and consequently can not have access to protection;

  3. the dichotomy refugee/migrant, obligation/choice is leading to the antinomy, sometimes showcased in political campaigns, between the persecuted refugee that may be helped and the economic migrant who must be deported as "comes here to steal our jobs". In the situation of misery, fragility and deprivation that affects many parts of the world, the critical eye towards those who do not clearly fall into the current category of refugee may add injustice to injustice.

To conclude, the terminology in use would need to evolve in order to respond to the increasing complexity of today's world.

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