More than a million migrants and refugees have crossed European borders in the last year, posing yet another challenge to European unity. There is one thing that really strikes me in the public debate about how to deal with this huge influx: people tend to take it for granted that the legal distinction between “refugees” and “economic migrants” and the differential treatment that goes with it are morally justified. There is a broad consensus that, of course, we have to grant asylum to people fleeing from the horrors of the Syrian civil war, but that we are justified in refusing asylum to people escaping from poverty. But is there a morally relevant difference between taking refuge from poverty and escaping from war? I do not think that there is, and hence believe that the differential treatment of the two groups is unjust.
The legal point of reference for the distinction is the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees, which, as amended by the 1967 Protocol, defines a refugee as
“A person who owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country; or who, not having a nationality and being outside the country of his former habitual residence as a result of such events, is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to return to it”.