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”.
On the webpage of the UNHCR we read that refugees and migrants are “fundamentally different”. Economic migrants are said to “choose to move in order to improve the future prospects of themselves and their families”, while refugees “have to move if they are to save their lives or preserve their freedom”. The crucial difference is supposed to lie in the voluntariness or choice.
There are several problems with the distinction between refugees and economic migrants. Let me mention four:
- Can we speak about choice when the alternative to migration is living at the subsistence level with no hope for improvement? The bold claim that economic migrants choose to move ignores the difference between real choices and apparent choices. I do not want to deny that some migrants have a real choice, but many have not. It is unfair to impute to all economic migrants that they are merely seeking a better life.
- People obviously overlook that poverty can be just as life threatening as bombs. Why should it be just to send refugees back home just because the death they are facing is one caused by hunger or lack of access to adequate health care, not by bombs and guns?
- The distinction does not fit the reality, where it is most of the time impossible to disentangle economic failure, poverty, political instability and persecution. Poverty often results from – national and international – politics.
- In both cases we, the governments and citizens of the West, have contributed to the situation from which the refugees are escaping: We produced and exported many of the weapons with which wars in the Middle East are fought. We supported the outbreak of a civil war in Syria the disastrous consequences of which were foreseeable. We contributed to draughts and other natural disasters through our greenhouse gas emissions. We created and uphold economic institutions and practices that disadvantage poor countries. In a world as interlinked and globalised as ours, we cannot claim that the fate of the victims of either war or poverty is independent from our actions. This joint guilt strengthens our moral obligation towards those suffering from either war or poverty. That we have this obligation in the first place is simply due to the fact they are human beings whose life is in danger. Economic migrants do not only deserve equal sympathy, as Diane Abbott emphasised, they require us to act.
The fact that the 1951 Refugee Convention does not apply to economic migrants does not imply that it is here and now morally justified to refuse granting asylum to people fleeing from hunger. Of course there are limits to how many refugees a country is able to grant asylum, although these limits are not reached as quickly as many people assume. It is, moreover, more difficult to determine whether a person is involuntarily poor than whether she is a victim of political persecution. Yet these pragmatic aspects should not blind us for the injustice of making the right to asylum dependent on “political” reasons for seeking refuge. Questions of practicability should be clearly distinguished from questions of justice. As far as matters of justice are concerned, the current practice of distinguishing between refugees and economic migrants and depriving the latter of all asylum rights is highly problematic. Pragmatic considerations might make it necessary to grant asylum to certain groups of people only, but such a decision is in need of moral justification.