They are refugees, not migrants

Europe is witnessing probably the greatest movement of people since the Second World War. Over the last several months, hundreds of thousands of men, women and children from Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, Eritrea and Sub-Saharan Africa have been risking their lives each day in a bid to reach Europe. Thousands have perished in the attempt. The harrowing image of the body of three-year-old >Aylan Kurdi washed ashore on the Turkish coastline has become the defining image of the humanitarian crisis that is presently unfolding. The crisis is only expected to worsen, with the United Nations forecasting that over 3,000 people a day will try to reach Western Europe alone in the next few months. The number of fatalities is also expected to rise. The increasing public attention being given to the situation in Europe has thrown into sharp focus the policies of several prominent European governments towards such displaced persons.

Consequence of terminology

As the crisis in the Mediterranean has unfolded, a number of European politicians and media houses have chosen to consistently refer it as a >‘migrant’ crisis . The majority of the men, women and children trying to reach European shores have been portrayed as economic migrants in search of a better life. In a bid to incite nationalistic tendencies, the displaced persons have been compared to marauders posing a threat to the standard of living and social structure of a privileged European society. The choice in terminology and the rhetoric that follows suit is not wholly without consequence, both legal and otherwise.

In law, the distinction between a refugee and a migrant is of great significance. First and foremost, refugees enjoy a distinct and unique standard of protection under international law. A refugee has been defined under the 1951 Refugee Convention of the UNHCR and its 1967 Protocol as any person who, “owing to a well founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside of the country of his nationality and is unable, or is owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself the protection of that country”. With the evolution of international refugee law, this definition of convention refugees has been expanded to cover persons who have fled their countries due to armed conflicts, internal turmoil and situations involving gross and systematic violation of human rights. Such persons are typically referred to as humanitarian refugees. Refugees enjoy certain special protections under law, such as safety from deportation to the country where they face persecution; protection of basic human rights without racial or religious discrimination, or of national origin; access to fair and efficient asylum procedures; provision of administrative assistance, and so on.

Contrary to what some European leaders and media houses would have us believe, the crisis unfolding in the Mediterranean is mostly about refugees.

On the other hand, migrants (persons who choose to leave their home state, principally in search of a better life, as opposed to escaping some form of persecution, internal strife or armed conflict) do not enjoy any protection and/or privileges under international law. Countries are therefore at liberty to deal with migrants under their own immigration laws and processes.

Outside of the law, the choice of terminology is of critical importance in shaping the perception, attitudes and behaviour of the public at large and can impact the lives and safety of displaced persons. Being a migrant implies a choice, exercised voluntarily, to seek a better life from that offered in the home country, and not an involuntary act, brought on by the instinct of self-preservation — from the threat of persecution, internal strife or armed conflict in the home country. The latter is perceived, rightly or wrongly, to be a legitimate reason for movement across borders — one in which the world community has a shared collective interest. Therefore, the conflation of refugees with migrants can seriously undermine and prejudice the public support available to such displaced persons, one that is critical to the protection of such displaced persons.

Contrary to what some European leaders and media houses would have us believe, the crisis unfolding in the Mediterranean is mostly about refugees. The majority of the men, women and children are reportedly from Syria, Eritrea and Afghanistan — countries plagued by civil war, gross human rights violations and religious insurgency. This is not to suggest that no migrants are trying to reach Europe in search of a better life than that offered in their home country. Indeed, much of the displaced populations from Sub-Saharan Africa are migrants. Nevertheless, by using the expression ‘migrant crisis’ to broadly refer to the entire spectrum of the ongoing crisis in the Mediterranean, European leaders and media houses are trying to desensitise the public at large by misleading them about the real nature of the crisis unfolding therein.

(Jay Manoj Sanklecha is a graduate of the West Bengal National University of Juridical Sciences, Kolkata, and is working with a law firm in Mumbai.)

Our code of editorial values

Related Topics
This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor

Printable version | Dec 2, 2021 2:35:26 PM |

Next Story