What Makes A Migrant?

18 April 2016

There are currently an estimated 59.5 million displaced persons worldwide. The majority of these people reside in Turkey, Pakistan and Lebanon. However, the unprecedented number of people seeking asylum and the growing calls for Western nations to provide assistance have shown that governments are both unsure and unprepared to handle the situation. Applications for asylum in European Union nations increased by 130 per cent in both the third and final quarters of 2015 when compared to the previous year. And while Australia received approximately only 0.24 per cent of the world’s asylum seeker applications in 2014, the political controversies surrounding offshore detention, visa policies and border security has meant the global asylum seeker issue is also at the forefront of our national discourse.

Given the scale of the issue and the difficulties in establishing a united and effective response, it is perhaps not surprising that voices within the debate have attempted to downplay the statistics. In particular, there has been much emphasis on the distinction between ‘genuine refugees’ versus ‘economic migrants’. Those who employ the latter term often seem to do so in an attempt to reduce the number of people they are obliged to aid. The President of the European Union, Donald Tusk, recently appealed to “all potential illegal economic migrants” to stay away from Europe. The distinction has also been drawn by British Prime Minister David Cameron who has previously proclaimed: “For those economic migrants seeking a better life, we will continue to work to break the link between getting on a boat and getting settlement in Europe… For those genuine refugees fleeing civil war, we will act with compassion and continue to provide sanctuary.”

In Australia, the term was touted by former Immigration and Border Protection Minister, Scott Morrison, and reiterated by Tony Abbott during last year’s Margaret Thatcher lecture. Even pro-refugee supporters have not rejected the term outright; instead they offer the assurance that the majority of asylum seekers are in fact ‘genuine’ or suggest, as English journalist Nick Cohen recently argued in The Guardian, “to help real refugees, be firm with economic migrants”.

It seems curious that in such a controversial debate, the term ‘economic migrant’ has been used so extensively yet remains unchallenged. As a label, it has been used at worst as an accusation and at best with negative implications. By drawing distinctions between ‘genuine refugees’ and ‘economic migrants’, the suggestion is that the latter is disingenuous, opportunistic and is exploiting the goodwill of Western liberal democracies.

Such a negative coding of the term is puzzling when it is considered in a broader context. If an economic migrant is defined as somebody who migrates for economic and lifestyle reasons, then a vast portion of migrants historically and globally can be categorised as such. What were the early migrants from Europe and Asia to Australian goldfields in the late 19th Century if not economic migrants seeking wealth and a specific Australian lifestyle? Why is a university-educated person from the UK who moves to Australia for employment opportunities simply considered an expatriate? In 2013-14, Australia accepted 190,000 migrants and issued 4.7 million temporary visas, of which over 62,000 were breached – predominantly by citizens from China, Malaysia, the UK and the USA. While sanctions were no doubt applied, these individuals were not coded with negative terminology or portrayed as a threat to national stability. And what about the many Australians who relocate overseas each year seeking work and lifestyle changes? Of course these groups of people are distinguishable from the current crisis as they largely abide formal visa and international travel regulations. What is remarkable is that the negative terminology of ‘economic migrant’ is only employed in the isolated context of the asylum seeker debate and used with the underlying resolve to restrict the movement of a specific demographic. It is a particular hubris of privileged citizens, particularly of Western societies, to feel entitled to the world yet deny the same mobility to others.

Besides the flawed logic behind the concept of the ‘economic migrant’, the question of how to best handle the current mass migration situation is valid. In the context of war, it makes sense that help for the vulnerable should be prioritised. Agreeably, those merely seeking a lifestyle change should not be accessing the services aimed at providing sanctuary to the persecuted. But in reality, the distinction between ‘genuine refugee’ and ‘economic migrant’ is hardly clear-cut.

An argument made by Tony Abbott in his Margaret Thatcher lecture was that the people currently claiming asylum have crossed not one border but many and are no longer fleeing in fear but are contracting with people smugglers. Thus they are economic migrants because they had already escaped persecution when they decided to move again. This argument ignores the bureaucratic process of seeking refugee status and protection. Applications for protection visas must be made within or upon arrival at the border of the designated nation. Unless countries ‘insulated’ by ‘safe’ neighbours expect to be exempt from providing aid, the extended movement of people through borders is essentially unavoidable. Moreover, current Australian legislation necessitates asylum seekers arrive with a valid visa – and thus typically by plane – in order to be qualified to apply for a permanent protection visa and to be settled within Australia. For those fleeing war, jumping the bureaucratic hurdles for international travel and hopping on a plane is not always possible. An alternative option is to be registered as a refugee with the UNHCR and await resettlement via a national humanitarian program. But given that 15.1 million refugees are currently of concern to the UNHCR – the highest number in 20 years – such an outcome would require a lot of luck and patience. Given the current climate, it is not unbelievable that many asylum seekers would go to extraordinary lengths to travel via boat and across land in order to appeal to peaceful and supportive countries for sanctuary.

The boundary between ‘economic migrant’ and ‘genuine refugee’ can also be blurred simply due to the complexity of the refugee experience. The UK-based Overseas Development Institute recently produced a ‘Why People Move’ report, which found that the categories of ‘refugee’ and ‘economic migrant’ are not mutually exclusive. This is because the motives for both groups may be similar and priorities may change throughout the journey. For the asylum seekers looking to enter Europe, instability in life and their future means reality is fluid. Additionally, the report argues, “political insecurity and conflict cannot be considered in isolation from the wider impact… on economic opportunities and the labour market”. But perhaps most resonantly, it reminds us that “safety was not all that [refugees] sought because it was not all that they had lost”. Having fled from home for an indefinite period of time, access to meaningful work, social stability or education no doubt contributes to an individual’s sense of security and drive for survival. Essentially, the categories of the current debate are not constructive and they simplify the complexity of seeking asylum.

The concept of the ‘economic migrant’ however is not merely just the careless use of a misguided label. Rather, the frequent use of the phrase, despite its limitations, has deeper effects. The concept of the ‘economic migrant’ allows us to withhold sympathy without damaging our conscience. By conjuring the figure of the ‘economic migrant’ who embodies deception, greed for wealth and disregard for Western bureaucracy, meritocracy and order, we are able to imagine an ideal ‘genuine refugee’ elsewhere. Someone who is orderly, who doesn’t disrupt Western bureaucratic structures, who is waiting their turn patiently in a queue. Such a ‘genuine refugee’ doesn’t demand safety and aid but waits graciously for us to reach out our hand when we feel inclined to do so. The reality is, such a refugee does not exist. Those escaping war and persecution are rarely able to do so patiently and orderly. But by conjuring the threat of the ‘economic migrant’, we allow ourselves to turn our backs to those at our door with the justification that we are reserving our aid for a more deserving person elsewhere.

Those who advocate for the rights of refugees to seek asylum need to be conscious of the language of the debate. Simply insisting that certain groups are not economic migrants will risk misplacing the accusation upon others similarly in need. Instead, we need to challenge the flawed premise of the concept and shift the language of the debate to ensure it happens on our terms. While a viable global solution to the crisis certainly needs to be found, in the meantime we should set aside dehumanising labels and treat all asylum seekers as complex human beings who are driven by the same desire for a safe and prosperous life that we all have.

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