Good Refugees vs Bad Migrants

by Hector Uniacke

20 November 2016

United Nations Photo / Flickr
United Nations Photo / Flickr

Since 2015, the question of how we ought to name the masses of displaced communities trying to come to Europe has been ever-present. In a recent speech at the United Nations, Theresa May insisted on the importance of distinguishing ‘refugees’ from ‘migrants’. She speaks a logic of austerity, implying that our limited resources mean that we must only give support to those who ‘really need it’: those who fall within the former category, and not the latter. It’s time to re-examine the political implications of the distinction between migrants and refugees.

Many have sensed the violence latent in the use of the term ‘economic migrant’, culminating in an Al Jazeera piece which advocates that ‘refugee’ ought always to be preferred. For liberals, ‘refugee’ is a humanising antidote to the bestialised “swarms that former prime minister David Cameron loved to invoke. This struggle over language cannot be brushed off as merely semantic. Not only do the discourses that surround us have a material effect, but the binary distinction of ‘refugee’ from ‘migrant’ is encoded in law, wherein refugees are ‘due’ something migrants are not. To name a refugee and/or a migrant is an ideological diagnosis. Their use reveals both an analysis of what is behind this period of mass displacement – some say terrorism, others late capitalism – and a concomitant idea of how we should respond. In this context, we should examine the history of the binary. We also need an interrogation of the term ‘refugee’. What does it mean in practice for those legal institutions who control it? What constitutes those humanitarian promises that are the implied response to a refugee? How should the left respond to the liberal recourse to ‘refugee’? For as a term that demands aid it may be humanising, but it is also depoliticising. And depoliticisation has only ever favoured the spectacle of the status quo.

Building a binary.

The binary of ‘refugees’ and ‘migrants’ is a moveable feast, mobilised or discarded as the situation demands. UN states are nominally bound by international treaty – the 1951 Geneva Convention and its 1967 New York Protocol – to grant refuge to those fleeing armed conflict and persecution. While “refugees, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), “cannot safely return home,” those who “face no such impediment” are at the mercy of these same states’ national interest. By now, we ought to be attuned to the fact that when heads of state mobilise the term ‘migrant’ as opposed to ‘refugee’ they mean ‘those whom we owe nothing.’ Never mind that, in the post-war period when this binary was institutionally constructed, these migrants formed the ‘labour flows’ that helped rebuild a conflict-shattered west. The post-war boom depended on migrant labour from former British colonies to staff, amongst other things, the burgeoning welfare state. But by 1962 the Immigration Act was passed. At a point when the lowest paid sectors were adequately provided with cheap labour, a filter was put on migration to favour relatively skilled workers. Migrant labour, as far as capitalist states are concerned, is a disposable instrument in the service of surplus value.

The categorization of surplus populations according to whether their movement was ‘forced’ or ‘voluntary’ took shape in the face of ruptures caused by the second world war. Masses of displaced communities from Eastern Europe in particular needed support and protection while global capital needed to realign, and relocate, its labour force. Accordingly, nation states incentivised international migration to align with domestic interests. Thus, after the Displaced Persons Act of 1948, the US began accepting “relevant refugees: these might be workers who could fill in perceived agricultural labour shortages, or Baltic refugees who were said to be ‘de facto annexed by a foreign power’ (ie. the Soviet Union). Ostensibly, the discourse that separates refugees and migrants seeks to outline and determine peoples’ origins and consequent rights. But in practice – and from its inception – there has been a slippage at the moment these surplus populations re-enter the labour market.

It is then unsurprising that the working definitions of these terms discriminate over points of origin. A refugee is said to be – and, of course, often is – escaping a persecution to which they cannot return. A migrant, contrastingly, is defined as any whose “decision to migrate is taken freely by the individual concerned, for reasons of ‘personal convenience’ and without intervention of an external compelling factor.” By fixing identities at the very moment of flight,  the west disavows its own historic role in creating the conditions from which people need to flee whilst, simultaneously, paving the way for partial analyses of these conditions. This portrait of the migrant is absurdly ahistorical. It depicts the migrant as a fictitious agent whose freedom from ‘external compelling factors’ implies that they are unaffected by history, by colonialism and its various post-independence surrogates. As for ‘refugees’, one need only look to the recent EU-Afghan deal to see how grave are the costs of submission to this distinction. On the 4th October a conference gathered in Brussels to forward an EU-Afghan Deal that will see an unlimited number of Afghans deported from Europe in exchange for a fund of Western Aid money. The justification is grimly semantic: refugees must be deported to an Afghanistan that is now ‘post-conflict’. Or so they say, as bombs set off in Kabul.

Humanitarianism against the human?

A ‘refugee’ is, legally, an ephemeral being, subject to what anthropologist Michel Agier terms a “detestable liminality”. It is an identity that is said to begin the moment they are uprooted from their established communities; it might ‘end’ in a resolved asylum application, in the labour market, or in death. UNHCR have, since 1951, been responsible for the world’s refugee population. To visit any of their sponsored ‘camps’ is, then, to experience the institutional vision of a refuge, to which refugees have an inalienable right. And these camps are a spatial reflection, or revelation, of how the refugee is seen. Fundamentally, they are segregated. Elliniko Camp, on the outskirts of Athens, was established in the old Olympic Park. A baseball field is lined with rows of white UNHCR branded tents, which intensify the summer heat as much as the winter cold. There is an atmosphere of expectation, because everything must be given, nothing taken. Families here are waiting for food, water, medicine, a way out, all of which are in short supply. Recently, 141 families from Elliniko signed an open letter which suggested that the tacit acceptance of their dire conditions must be due to a generalized ignorance of them. How else could things continue as they are? Yet this ignorance, facilitated by segregation, is tactical. It casts a silent veil over the reality of these peoples’ lived experience.

Indeed, what is happening in Europe is only misleadingly called a refugee crisis. There is nothing inherently critical about the number of displaced people in the world rapidly increasing. The crisis, rather, emerges as one of reception: the failure of states and of organisations like UNHCR to stand by those humanitarian promises to whose fulfillment hundreds of thousands of people have needed – now, in a Europe of austerity – to lay claim. But, of course, the vast majority of the world’s refugees are not in the West. In that context it has been much easier for humanitarian organisations to work in spaces ‘outside of politics’. There they are only rarely touched by our media, and they rarely collide with the domestic politics of powerful nations. Moreover, it is easy for the world’s richest nations to pay at arm’s length. But the professed universality of human rights and its representative bodies has revealed its contingencies as the defiant journeys of untold numbers of people has made it impossible to isolate the practice of humanitarianism, even in theory, from domestic and European policies. The destruction of the ‘Jungle’ in Calais is paradigmatic. The razing of the camp should be seen as a violent enforcement of the UK border which, under the Le Touquet agreement, extends to Calais rather than Dover. State-sanctioned aid is predicated on controlling the movement of those the state ‘supports’. Thus the relocation of the thousands of people living in the ‘Jungle’ to Reception and Orientation Centres is for the French government as much a symbolic reassertion of control as a practical solution. It is clear how the logic of European austerity has nurtured an atmosphere of xenophobia which legitimizes racism, allowing states to neglect or enact violence where support is due.

This crisis informs the privatization and militarization of Europe’s borders, the racist breaches of the Schengen agreement, the terrible conditions in those detention centres which are only euphemistically called ‘camps’. All these tactics seek to externalize and silence the issue. Hence in the drastic EU-Afghan deal, the West hopes that in paying a large sum for deportations – they give aid money in exchange for repatriation – they might re-establish a safe distance between themselves and the manifestations of those conflicts which they have helped create. The planned proposals for Afghanistan show us that humanitarianism is far from universal. The deportation of up to 80,000 Afghani’s will do nothing but reduce their visibility in Europe. It is a violent act of denial for which the EU is willing to pay the price of making these peoples’ vulnerability reappear in the country whose dangers necessitated their journeys in the first place.

Beyond the realm of politics.

Since refugees are subject to a forced – ‘involuntary’ – migration, they become victims of historico-political forces that are beyond their control. In this way they are defined by an absence of agency, apparently outside of politics. Contrast the entrepreneurial migrant of the UN definition (above), who also exists outside of politics, but this time situated in an abstracted realm of pure economic choice. The excess of agency that defines the migrant finds its mirror image in the faceless, powerless, refugee. The fight for survival that characterises a refugee’s initial flight is taken to be an immutable aspect of their identity. All the way through the journey, even through the asylum system, a refugee is then a mere animal life, transitory and depoliticised.

But the migration is itself transformative: “these journeys [are] not just flights from violence but also struggles for safety, mobility and recognition”. The deterrents and policing tactics that deny legal passage within Europe – border closures, fingerprinting,  etc – necessitate, and prolong, these fraught journeys. These struggles, which some cast as a form of class struggle, expose the lie at the heart of the image of refugees as victims. For that narrative focuses attention on the suffering of people, not on the objective conditions that are the root cause of this suffering. Moria camp on Lesbos was recently burned down. Yet people have stopped short of registering this as an act of resistance, calculated by the migrants who had been forced to live in those awful conditions for too long, and who faced impending removal. It’s worth asking ourselves not just why peoples’ lives are being continually endangered – but what it says that such people readily fight back. When we ask this of ourselves, we return agency to the refugee. 

The moment a refugee is given back her agency, we become both more and less implicated. Less because we are no longer morally bound to provide a service of charity; more because when it is acknowledged that the treatment of refugees is not merely an arbitrary betrayal of human rights but is, rather, structural and symptomatic, it becomes apparent that their political (as opposed to humanitarian) oppression is bound up with the struggles facing the majority of Europeans today. The solidarity movement in Greece that has grown in the face of this crisis highlights these intersections: those hardest hit by austerity in Europe respond by breaking squats to house thousands of refugees; respond with donations, legal-training, with protests against the violence of Syriza’s troika-sanctioned response. None of this is to imply the ‘sameness’ of Europeans and those coming from Afghanistan or Syria, merely because we are all human. As humans, we are all unique, while differences in race, class, and gender shape identities along divergent lines. It is, rather, to say that migrants and Europeans can find common cause as subjects struggling against the politics of Austerity Europe. Struggles which are only superficially diverse.

Solidarity, not charity.

A refuge is a space of seclusion and segregation. Camps stop short of engaging their vulnerable inhabitants as political subjects, but rather perpetuate a stagnating hierarchy between helper and victim. In this context, aid is the raison d’être and sole authorised resource of refugees. As such, a culture of dependence and powerlessness is fostered rather than a movement towards reestablishing fragile identities. But to define refugees as passive recipients of aid in an external, and hostile, environment is only to perpetuate their oppression and deny in advance their expressions of resistance.

And since the culture of charity and state-sanctioned humanitarianism depends on giving aid to a particular group of people designated refugee, this aid will be perfunctorily withdrawn when that designation changes. In other words, support falters when refugees show themselves to be anything other than passively dependent: when they struggle, when they resist. Theresa May’s recent proposals (fundamentally, a complete denial of responsibility) speak to this tendency. She implies that those who have made defiant journeys across increasingly militarised European borders should be more robustly denied access to asylum in England. Instead, she avows a will to help those “most vulnerable” refugees who have not made the journey to Europe. Now, if it were the case that safe and legal passages to and within Europe were a reality, then a contrast could perhaps begin to be drawn between those in Europe and those without. However, May’s vision includes a further crackdown within Europe, thus casting those already migrating further into the realm of illegality, further threatening their security. But when so many of those migrating are families with children – rather than the ideotypical single man that May insinuates – this crackdown reveals itself not as an expression of care but of neurosis: an issue of security, not humanitarianism (see also: here). The implication is that the refugee must exist between the poles of dependence and illegality. While dependence is sanctioned, action is criminalised.

It is this bind that we must contest through acts of solidarity, not charity. This means, for one, rejecting the idea that people from a certain country might be deserving of a support denied to others. To this discrimination, we must respond with a kind of universalism, but one that focuses on the particular conditions faced by different people rather than on the abstraction of ‘human being’ as such. For this abstract human is never, in fact, furnished with a human right. As philosopher Hannah Arendt has pointed out: “a man who is nothing but a man has lost the very qualities which make it possible for other people to treat him as a fellow-man.”  Politicised, particular humans with particular and deeply political needs should be at the centre of our analyses and our struggle, and the focus of our mutual support.

The promises of human rights are unfulfilled at the very moment they are most in need. It is as if the shock and pain that constitute the everyday experience of the refugee – the effects of an absolute displacement – are so extreme as to make of her something other than a political agent. To think the abstract human is to think something not quite human. But solidarity movements can respond by politicizing this abstract human, highlighting that the root causes of their displacement are all-too-human and, most importantly, inextricable from those forces that are perpetuating their displacement within Europe.

Not all those who move are migrants.

The migrant/refugee binary is founded on an ideological attempt to carve a line between the economic and the political, upon which that between voluntary (economic migrant) and involuntary (political refugee) movement is imposed. But patterns of migration cannot be abstracted from the history of capitalism. John Berger imagines migration as an event in a dream dreamt by another: “As a figure in a dream dreamt by an unknown sleeper, he appears to act autonomously, at times unexpectedly; but everything he does – unless he revolts – is determined by the needs of the dreamer’s mind.” The discourses that are calculated to refuse so-called economic migrants the right to move deny that they, the arbiters of that discourse, are that unknown sleeper. The needs of capitalism, of colonialism, put differently, are inextricable from the histories of its subjected nations and the journeys of those nations’ inhabitants. In this context it can be seen that the recent liberal move to foreground the term refugee over migrant does nothing to contest the faulty foundations of this binary and the kinds of violence it perpetuates. Moving within the binary in search of a more humanizing and applicable term to apply to the populations now in Europe merely perpetuates that binary’s logic. It presumes that the forces that guard the term refugee will fulfill their promises whilst accepting the portrait of the migrant. Paradoxically, by reappropriating the term migrant – against its negative connotations in mainstream discourses – we can construct a platform to fight the crisis in Europe and its various manifestations. We are not here moving within the binary, but contesting the assumptions behind each term.

‘Migrant’ is an expansive term that applies to many who are not currently migrating. It contains an agency that is lacking in ‘refugee’: migration is an action, not a given. Moreover, it is a political term in its relationship to labour and capital. So that where the term ‘refugee’ – in its relationship to aid – claims to describe an ephemeral being whose (future) relationship to the labour market is obscured, ‘migrant’ works to demystify the conditions in and against which struggles will be continued. Displaced communities are always the most vulnerable to hyper-exploitation. And in Turkey, right now, Syrians over the age of eight are being put to work in garment factories for criminal wages. Resistance to such exploitation is not helped by misnaming them ‘refugees.’

The current situation is one of mass movement, mass displacement, mass resistance. To call all those moving ‘migrants’ is not to homogenize the diversity of people’s backgrounds and stories, but, in part, to acknowledge the practical similarity of the majority of these journeys. They are, after all, unified by a precarity that is enforced against anyone who isn’t white and european. To do so is also to criticise the institutional failures that perpetuate the crisis, one in which refugees might wait endlessly for their asylum claims to be processed, who even then face arbitrary detention and deportation ; or in which a young Moroccan man – thus technically a ‘migrant’ –  is now sleeping in the parks in Athens after spending nine months in jail on an absent, racist, charge.

The crisis of an illness is its climactic moment when hidden symptoms emerge. It ends in recovery or death. To repeat, this is not a refugee crisis. It is a capitalist crisis. We must seek to bring this crisis to its fulfillment in a way that weakens the forces that have caused it, not those subjected to it. To achieve this, we need a solidarity that unites rather than compartmentalises, one that notices that this period of mass migration is a symptom of rather than an aberration from the history of capitalism. These expressions of solidarity must be practical and concrete; we can, for instance, campaign to shut down Yarl’s Wood immigration detention centre. Rejecting the distinction between migrants and refugees, we must hold firm to the contention that migrants are welcome, and that regardless of migration status, we are all stronger together.


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