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“Refugees” and “economic migrants” – a morally problematic distinction

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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?
  3. 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.
  4. 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.

I am an Assistant Professor in Philosophy at the University of Twente in the Netherlands. Previously I have held research and teaching positions at the European Inter-University Centre for Human Rights and Democratisation in Venice, Maastricht University, Utrecht University and Eindhoven University of Technology. I hold a PhD from the European University Institute in Florence. My husband and I live in Baarn, a village in the province of Utrecht, together with our two daughters Philine and Romy.


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  1. cinnamonb

    Julia –

    ABSOLUTELY FANTASTIC, ON THE MONEY article. I feel the same way and seeing the way migrants have sometimes been treated and reading of the contitions at the Calais camp is just heartbreaking.

    I’m increasingly concerned because the mood of the U. S. (my country) is getting increasingly anti-immigrant. I’m on this one mailing list and some of the posts now are just —— not very tolerant. I’ve tried to post some challenges when I can and someone else also posts some articles that reflect some different points of view. This is really increasing since those Cologne attacks.

    With respect to economic migration, we U. S’ers should not forget that yes, there were those who migrated here for religious freedom (like the Pilgrims), but so many more came —— to better their lives economically! We have short memories, I guess.

    BTW, I also left a reply to Jesper L. Pederson’s post about “How People Vote Against Their Own Interest.” Just wondering if anyone saw that.

  2. Thanks for the post, Julia. I wondered here whether you have looked at Matthew Price’s Rethinking Asylum on this issue? My memory of his view is that the distinction, even if problematic in certain ways, has the merit of creating a separate category of cases that involve ‘persecution’, a separation that he deems useful for exacting a particular moral condemnation on governments that persecute their citizens. He may want to broaden the range of cases we classify as forms of persecution. For example, he may hold that economic migrants who are leaving countries where governments have intentionally subjected some group of its citizens to poverty ought to be classed also as ‘persecuted’. But there could remain importance, on this view, in distinguishing these cases from other instances of economic migration. I would be interested to hear your thoughts on this line.

    • Julia Hermann

      Thank you very much for drawing my attention to Price’s interesting book, Andrew. Price emphasises that persecuted people suffer a particular harm – exclusion from political membership – for which asylum provides the remedy: surrogate political membership. In addition, he stresses that “asylum can facilitate the further development and entrenchment of international norms against oppression and violations of human rights” (p. 14). As you suggest, it can be argued that asylum can serve the second function also in some cases of economic migration, namely in cases where governments are not willing to protect the right to food, shelter etc. of some of their citizens. International human rights norms do not only include civil and political rights but also social, economic and cultural rights. To this I would add that economic migrants are often politically excluded, too, since economic deprivation typically comes along with political exclusion. The different kinds of human rights are mutually dependent.
      Another point I want to add is that on my view, granting asylum ought not only to fulfil the functions described by Price. It should, in addition, express a state’s recognition of its involvement in the plight of many migrants, i.e. of its joined guilt. In today’s world, states ought to grant asylum to migrants who due to global economic institutions, civil wars, terrorism or global warming cannot live a decent life in their home country.

  3. Pierre-Etienne Vandamme

    Thanks for the post. I’m also in agreement with you Julia. The Convention is the mere product of a political compromise with moral obligations, not the translation into law of a fundamental moral distinction.

  4. Lisa Herzog

    Hi Julia, thanks for the post. I agree with your broad line, but I was wondering whether you might want to take it even further. Thus, one might say that from a perspective of justice, rather than practical exigencies, there is no reason at all to classify migrants into different categories (refugees, economic migrants, religious migrants (as the first commentator notes), etc). They are simply people who want to live in a different place (we might still want to condemn governments for failing to make their countries places in which people want to live, but that’s a different question). One might say that we have practical reasons to let only a certain number of them migrate at one time, which means that we have to find criteria for prioritizing the rights of some over those of others – and it makes sense to give highest priority to those who are escaping the worst conditions, whether dire poverty or war.
    This is not implied by what you said; your position is also compatible with a view that grants states a stronger right to exclude migrants if there is no pressing reason against doing so. So I was just interested what your position was.

    • Julia Hermann

      Hi Lisa, thanks for your question. It seems to me that whether there are justice-related reasons for categorising migrants depends on whether we think that national borders and immigration restrictions are in principle just, and I haven’t made up my mind on this point. If the practice of protecting state borders and keeping people from moving freely between states is just, there are, I think, reasons for distinguishing between different kinds of migrants according to the reasons they have for wanting to live in a different place. It might then be just to deny access to people whose well-being is in no way threatened in their home country.

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