• Text size Normal size text | Increase text size by 10% | Increase text size by 20% | Increase text size by 30%

Refugees Magazine Issue 148 ("Refugee or Migrant - Why It Matters") - Refugee or migrant?

Analysis/Editorials, 12 December 2007

In the case of the man on the cover of this magazine, at the moment when the picture was taken, the question was irrelevant. Whoever he is, he deserved to be saved precisely what the coast guards were trying to do after a boat of would-be migrants overturned off the coast of Spain, drowning several of its occupants including two pregnant women.

However, once he was safely on shore, the question of whether he was a refugee or a migrant may well have come immediately to the fore.

As a refugee, fleeing persecution or armed conflict, he would have been entitled to "international protection" in an asylum country in this case most probably Spain. On the other hand, if he was someone moving for financial reasons to earn a better living than he could at home then he would be classified as an economic migrant, and would quite likely be sent back to his home country.

This is a judgement that many countries around the world make in varying numbers of individual cases every day.

Sometimes the decision is relatively straightforward, and sometimes it is an extremely difficult call to make. There are countries that produce lots of economic migrants, and very few refugees. But they do produce some, and it is the job of asylum adjudicators to spot them. There are asylum seekers without documents who are refugees, and there are asylum seekers with valid travel documents who are most definitely not. There are people who articulate a false story well, and people who articulate a true story badly or not at all (because it is too painful and too personal).

And there is a grey zone: people who are leaving a country where persecution and discrimination are unquestionably occurring, and the economy is also dire. Are people leaving such countries for refugee reasons, or economic ones or do both sets of reasons fuse into one that is, in many cases, almost impossible to unravel?

And what about the people who leave their country for refugee reasons, and then keep on moving for economic ones (so-called 'secondary movers')? Whether or not their onward movement is justified may depend on what lies between their country of origin and the country where they eventually make their asylum claim.

There is, of course, nothing new about people moving. Migrations of people for both refugee and non-refugee reasons have been taking place since before the beginning of recorded time. And if we were to trace our ancestors back far enough, all of us would find that we originated somewhere else.

Nor should voluntary migration economic or otherwise necessarily be viewed as negative (even though it is usually seen that way). Migrants often fill the gaps in the workforce, rather than take other workers' jobs but they still make the perfect scapegoat for a society's ills, and their contribution is often hidden or ignored.

The linked issues of migration and asylum are probably more widely debated (and confused) today than ever before: perhaps because the number of people on the move has increased; perhaps because the planet or certain countries on it feel overcrowded; perhaps for a host of other reasons, both real and imagined.

And, as the 21st century progresses, it is likely to become even more complicated, with more people forced one way or another (war, economics, climate change) to pull up their roots and move somewhere else.

Over 200 million people are believed to be living outside their original homeland already. Relatively few of them are refugees. But, yes taking the trouble to find out which ones are does still matter.

To undermine the system that identifies a refugee, and prevents him or her from being sent home, would in some cases be like the coastguards in the cover photo cutting the rope instead of hauling it in. It should be unthinkable and it is unthinkable, when one looks at asylum seekers and refugees as individual human beings.

But when they are reduced to statistics, and described in pejorative terms such as 'floods,' 'waves,' 'unstoppable tides' (and other watery metaphors that bear a certain tragic irony given the number of would-be refugees and migrants who drown), they are all too easy to cast aside and ignore.

Source: Refugees Magazine Issue 148: "Refugee or Migrant Why It Matters" (December 2007).



Asylum and Migration

Asylum and Migration

All in the same boat: The challenges of mixed migration around the world.

Refugee Protection and Mixed Migration: A 10-Point Plan of Action

A UNHCR strategy setting out key areas in which action is required to address the phenomenon of mixed and irregular movements of people. See also: Schematic representation of a profiling and referral mechanism in the context of addressing mixed migratory movements.

International Migration

The link between movements of refugees and broader migration attracts growing attention.

Mixed Migration

Migrants are different from refugees but the two sometimes travel alongside each other.

Drifting Towards Italy

Every year, Europe's favourite summer playground - the Mediterranean Sea - turns into a graveyard as hundreds of men, women and children drown in a desperate bid to reach European Union (EU) countries.

The Italian island of Lampedusa is just 290 kilometres off the coast of Libya. In 2006, some 18,000 people crossed this perilous stretch of sea - mostly on inflatable dinghies fitted with an outboard engine. Some were seeking employment, others wanted to reunite with family members and still others were fleeing persecution, conflict or indiscriminate violence and had no choice but to leave through irregular routes in their search for safety.

Of those who made it to Lampedusa, some 6,000 claimed asylum. And nearly half of these were recognized as refugees or granted some form of protection by the Italian authorities.

In August 2007, the authorities in Lampedusa opened a new reception centre to ensure that people arriving by boat or rescued at sea are received in a dignified way and are provided with adequate accommodation and medical facilities.

Drifting Towards Italy

New Arrivals in Yemen

During one six-day period at the end of March, more than 1,100 Somalis and Ethiopians arrived on the shores of Yemen after crossing the Gulf of Aden on smuggler's boats from Bosaso, Somalia. At least 28 people died during these recent voyages – from asphyxiation, beating or drowning – and many were badly injured by the smugglers. Others suffered skin problems as a result of prolonged contact with sea water, human waste, diesel oil and other chemicals.

During a recent visit to Yemen, UNHCR Assistant High Commissioner for Protection Erika Feller pledged to further raise the profile of the situation, to appeal for additional funding and international action to help Yemen, and to develop projects that will improve the living conditions and self sufficiency of the refugees in Yemen.

Since January 2006, Yemen has received nearly 30,000 people from Somalia, Ethiopia and other places, while more than 500 people have died during the sea crossing and at least 300 remain missing. UNHCR provides assistance, care and housing to more than 100,000 refugees already in Yemen.

New Arrivals in Yemen

Crossing the Gulf of Aden

Every year thousands of people in the Horn of Africa - mainly Somalis and Ethiopians - leave their homes out of fear or pure despair, in search of safety or a better life. They make their way over dangerous Somali roads to Bossaso in the northern semi-autonomous region of Puntland.

In this lawless area, smuggler networks have free reign and innocent and desperate civilians pay up to US$150 to make the perilous trip across the Gulf of Aden.

Some stay weeks on end in safe houses or temporary homes in Bossaso before they can depart. A sudden call and a departure in the middle of the night, crammed in small unstable boats. At sea, anything can happen to them - they are at the whim of smugglers. Some people get beaten, stabbed, killed and thrown overboard. Others drown before arriving on the beaches of Yemen, which have become the burial ground for hundreds who many of those who died en route.

Crossing the Gulf of Aden

IOM Director General Swing Remarks on the Resettlement of Refugees from Bhutan in NepalPlay video

IOM Director General Swing Remarks on the Resettlement of Refugees from Bhutan in Nepal

The UN refugee agency and the International Organization for Migration (IOM) marked a major milestone: the resettlement of over 100,000 refugees from Bhutan in Nepal to third countries since the launch of the programme in 2007.
High Commissioner Guterres Remarks on the resettlement of Refugees from Bhutan in NepalPlay video

High Commissioner Guterres Remarks on the resettlement of Refugees from Bhutan in Nepal

The UN refugee agency and the International Organization for Migration (IOM) marked a major milestone: the resettlement of over 100,000 refugees from Bhutan in Nepal to third countries since the launch of the programme in 2007.
UNHCR - IDC video on alternatives to detention for childrenPlay video

UNHCR - IDC video on alternatives to detention for children

The story of a young boy and girl forced to flee their homes, and how detention can be avoided in order to complete their migration status.