Economic Migrants vs. Refugees: Drawing the Line?
|Written by: Ashrita Rau|
Program Intern, World Affairs Council of Atlanta
Student, Georgia State University
More than five million people have fled the war in Syria since it began in 2011, making it one of the worst refugee crises in history. Despite the fact that large numbers of refugees flee to surrounding countries—including Turkey, Lebanon, and Jordan—European countries remain the most outspoken critics of accepting refugees.
On July 12th, French President Emmanuel Macron gave a speech discussing the refugee crisis and the obligations of France in the face of so many asylum applications. Macron stressed that “Les réfugiés politiques et migrants économiques n’a rien à voir”, meaning that political refugees and economic migrants have nothing to do with each other. His goal was to gain support for refugees. In order to do so, he attempted to convince the general public that refugees, unlike economic migrants, were people who had a right to receive French citizenship and the protection of the French government.
|Refugees from Syria and Iraq|
A refugee, according to the 1951 definition by the UN Convention, is someone who has fled their country of residence because of a well-founded fear of death or imprisonment should they remain. They have to prove that they face persecution based on race, religion, nationality, or membership of a particular social group, and they are unwilling or unable to seek the protection of their country or to return to their country. If asylum applicants can prove that they meet all five of these criteria, they can be granted refugee status.
Economic migrants, unlike refugees, are not seen as people who have been forced to flee their country. Rather, public opinion generally tends to condemn economic migrants as people who are too lazy to stay in their own country but rather choose to cross the borders for ‘get rich quick’ schemes. In France, the migrants from North Africa are seen as those who illegally made their way to Europe and should be sent back home immediately. In the United States, migrants who manage to make their way into Texas from Central or South America are condemned as illegal immigrants and face deportation. The issue remains a prominent concern in the minds of United States residents, with around 60% of people polled in a PEW research study stating that they worry a “great deal” or a “fair amount” about illegal immigration.
The distinction between economic migrants and refugees is important politically. A refugee can receive rights and protection that economic migrants will not be granted. However, this clear distinction is too simplistic of an approach. It ignores the fact that economic migrants may migrate because of safety concerns linked to poverty. For example, a 2014 New York Times article by Sonia Nazario discusses how children who flee South and Central American countries in order to migrate to the United States do so in an attempt to avoid the alternative—a life of drug and gang violence.
It’s also unfair to assume that violence is a necessary factor for migration. Some of the people who migrate from poorer countries do so not because of violence, but because economic conditions are so terrible in their home countries that they are unable to survive. Despite that, migrants who move for economic reasons are generally seen as unworthy of gaining citizenship in the countries that they move to.
Warsan Shire, a British-Somali poet, wrote that “No one puts their children on a boat unless the water is safer than the land”. Perhaps when looking at economic migrants who take great risks, whether by boat or on foot, to reach other countries, we should remember that all humans have a right to safety and security, no matter whether or not they fit into the narrow definition by which the UN defines refugees.