Refugees & Economic Migrants: A Morally Spurious Distinction

Refugees & Economic Migrants

A Morally Spurious Distinction

By Dr. Kieran Oberman (Edinburgh University)

Jan 6, 2016         Picture: CAFOD, Ben White/Flickr.

This article is part of The Critique’s And Who Is My Neighbour? Exclusive.

Is this a “migrant crisis” or a “refugee crisis”? Most of the media is calling it a “migrant crisis”, making some people angry. A petition on, complains that “[a]lmost all these people are fleeing war-torn regions, particularly the current war in Syria”. They should not be described as migrants, as if they are merely “in search of work and better living standards”. Aljazeera uses the term the petitioners demand be used: “refugee crisis”. But this too has attracted criticism. Aljazeera, critics complain, is “politicising” the issue. Amongst the populations arriving in Europe are different people moving for different reasons. They are all migrants, but only some are refugees; hence “migrant crisis” is the correct term to use.

Why this fight over labels? Because which words we use are assumed to have implications for how the crisis should be addressed. The 1951 Geneva Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees defines a refugee as someone who flees his or her country to escape persecution. If someone satisfies the definition of a refugee then they are entitled to claim asylum in the state to which they have fled. Economic migrants have no such entitlement.

People seem to have assumed that what is true in law must be true in morality. The British tabloids label economic migrants “bogus” and demand that they be prevented from “abusing the system”. (The current media obsession is with “fake Syrians”. One Daily Mail front-page headline screams, “4 out of 5 Migrants Aren’t Syrians”). Those defending the rights of refugees also insist upon the refugee/migrants distinction. Adrian Edwards of the UNHCR, for instance, argues that “[b]lurring the two terms takes attention away from the specific legal protections refugees require [and] can undermine public support for refugees”. Economic migrants, he argues, “choose to move”. Unlike refugees, they are under no “direct threat of persecution or death”.

There is only one problem with all of this: the distinction between refugees and economic migrants makes no moral sense. There are people who need to migrate to have their basic rights satisfied and there are countries in a position to assist them. That is what is important. Whether those migrating are fleeing poverty or persecution is morally irrelevant.

Let us recall the serious threat to life and basic wellbeing that poverty constitutes. The billions of people living in desperate poverty on less than $2 a day are often forced to drink polluted water, work in unsafe conditions and live in substandard accommodation. They must cope with much higher rates of malnutrition, parasite infection, disease, infant mortality and death in childbirth. They are denied the health care and welfare support provided to citizens in rich states. Life expectancy in the poorest countries is shockingly low, and even in middle-income countries, such as China, there remains millions living on the edge of survival.

One cannot assume then that a refugee is necessarily in greater need than an economic migrant. Clearly some refugees will be in greater need than some economic migrants, since “economic migrants” is such a broad category. It includes people who are fleeing desperate poverty, but also comfortably off workers seeking higher pay elsewhere. But not all refugees are alike either. While (according to the Convention definition) all refugees are at risk of persecution, the level of risk and the kind of persecution will differ from case to case. Some refugees fear execution or torture if they return while others fear only unjust detention. Some would definitely be victimised; others would, in all likelihood, go unharmed.

A rational asylum system would give priority to those in most need, irrespective of whether they are refugees or economic migrants. It would, for instance, offer the same protection to someone who is at risk of starvation as is currently offered to someone who is at risk of torture, assuming the risks and the hardships in each case are of equal severity.

“A rational asylum system would give priority to those in most need, irrespective of whether they are refugees or economic migrants”.

To see the absurdity of the current asylum system, imagine a health system working upon similar lines. Instead of treating the sick and injured, it treats only those who are sick or injured for particular reasons. Victims of assault are seen to; those suffering from disease or malnutrition are ignored. Doctors attend to a superficial knife wound, but walk past a man having a stroke. Now imagine, under this healthcare system, that some patients pretended to be the victims of assault in order to obtain treatment. Would we condemn them as “bogus treatment-seekers” for “abusing the system”? I do not think so. More likely, we would regard their behaviour as a reasonable reaction to arbitrary discrimination.

Is this analogy with healthcare far fetched? For some, it is all too fitting. In a recent case before the UK Court of Appeal, six foreign nationals with life threatening illnesses (five with kidney failure, one with HIV) argued that they should be allowed to remain in the UK to continue lifesaving treatment. The court found against them. It accepted that they could not obtain treatment in their home countries and would die upon return, but ruled that the British government was permitted to exclude them nonetheless. Of course, had their lives been threatened by persecution as well as disease, they would have been entitled to stay. But sadly for them, this was not the case.

If the cruelty of ripping patients off dialysis is not enough to convince you that the 1951 Convention is unjustifiably narrow, consider the current crisis. Absurdly, were we to stick strictly to the Convention definition of a refugee, those fleeing conflict in Syria would be denied protection. After all, most Syrians are not fleeing persecution since they are not being singled out for attack. They are fleeing war and the indiscriminate destruction it wreaks. This does not lessen public sympathy for them, nor should it. People are owed protection from bullets and shrapnel, whether or not they are the intended victims. Even governments seem able to recognise this point. Most Syrian asylum claims that have been lodged in Germany, for instance, have been accepted. But if protection is to be widened to include war refugees, why should it not also be widened to include the desperately poor?

Several arguments might be made here in defence of the status quo, but none prove successful. It might be said that the number of refugees is relatively low; but the number of desperately poor people is unmanageably high. Receiving countries may be able to cope with millions but they cannot cope with billions. There are simply too many desperately poor people in the world for them all to be accommodated.

The problem with this argument is that, while it is true that receiving countries could not accommodate all the desperately poor people in the world, this does not justify limiting protection only to refugees. The proper criterion for distributing protection is need. Everyone who is in dire need has a claim to protection. Perhaps not all claims can be met but, given the size and wealth of the world’s richest countries, it is clear that large numbers could. As long as receiving countries could still accommodate some further number of desperately poor people, they have reason to do so. Again the health care analogy proves helpful. There are limits to the numbers that hospitals can accommodate, but that provides no reason to arbitrarily offer care only to those who are the victims of assault and exclude those who are sick or injured for other reasons. Instead, two things are clear: (1) every spare bed should be filled, and (2) those in most need have priority. Equivalent principles apply to the case of asylum.

“The proper criterion for distributing protection is need. Everyone who is dire need has a claim to protection”.

Let us consider another argument. It has been suggested that what distinguishes refugees from economic migrants is not numbers but the possibility of alternative means of assistance. Receiving states could assist economic migrants within their home countries, by means of aid, trade and other such measures. Refugees, however, must be admitted for they cannot safely return home.

There are two problems with this argument. First, even if it were important to distinguish between those people that receiving states can assist within their home countries and those who must be allowed to stay, such a distinction cuts across the refugee/economic migrant distinction. Some refugees could be safely returned were receiving states to exert diplomatic pressure, send in peacekeeping troops or, at the extreme, wage a humanitarian war. Of course, such measures will not work in every case. Intervention in Libya, Iraq and Afghanistan did not end refugee flows (far from it) and intervention in Syria is unlikely to solve the current crisis, despite what David Cameron has claimed. But there are examples in which intervention has facilitated the return of refugees including Indian intervention in Bangladesh, NATO intervention in Kosovo and the many UN deployments that have helped to keep the peace in various conflict zones throughout the world. It is misleading then to suggest that the only means that receiving states have to assist refugees is by offering them asylum.

Nor can all economic migrants be assisted within their home countries. There is no easy solution to poverty. Aid sceptics point to the billions already spent on international assistance without clear signs of success. Aid has failed, in their view, because poverty is not caused by a lack of resources but by weak institutions and dysfunctional political cultures. Robust institutions and healthy political cultures cannot be engineered from the outside. Perhaps aid sceptics are overly pessimistic or perhaps free trade or some other such measure would prove effective instead. But even those most enthusiastic about international initiatives must accept that there are at least some desperately poor people who must migrate if they are to satisfy their basic needs. Persecution cannot be easily prevented in places like North Korea or Eritrea, but nor can poverty.

Second, whether or not someone can be assisted in their home country is, in fact, irrelevant. What matters is whether they will be assisted. Again an analogy with healthcare proves useful. If there are some patients who could be treated at home, it seems reasonable to treat them at home rather than in hospital. But it is crucial that they actually are treated at home. A health care system that sought to justify the suffering of millions of excluded patients on the grounds that they could have been treated at home (although they weren’t) would be offering no justification at all. Likewise, the current asylum system cannot justify excluding economic migrants unless those excluded actually receive assistance in their home country. As long as poverty goes unaddressed, poor people have a claim to migrate.

“A health care system that sought to justify the suffering of millions of excluded patients on the grounds that they could have been treated at home (although they weren’t) would be offering no justification at all”.

Let us consider one last argument. It might be suggested that while refugees are fleeing the unjust actions of their persecutors, no one forces economic migrants to leave. And it may be said to be more important to assist the victims of injustice than to assist the victims of simple misfortune. The presence of injustice thus justifies the privileging of refugees.

But this argument is both factually and morally implausible. It is factually implausible since no one who has seriously studied the issue believes that poverty is purely a natural phenomenon. While there is a heated debate over the precise cause of poverty, there is broad agreement that unjust human actions play an important role. Some point to unjust actions performed by international actors, such as colonialism, support for Cold War despots and the enforcement of unfair trade rules. Others point to unjust actions performed domestically, most notably the corruption and repression perpetrated by governments around the world. Either way, the poor are the victims of injustice as well as refugees.

The argument is morally implausible since, in fact, there is no reason to assist only the victims of injustice and not the victims of natural misfortune, even if we were to categorise poverty as such. So much was revealed by the first healthcare example: it would be absurd for a health system to treat only the victims of assault and not those suffering sickness or injury due to natural causes. Consider another example. When children become trapped down wells, a humane society rescues them. It does not waste time determining whether the children were pushed or fell in. People are understandably outraged at the sight of injustice and this outrage often has the effect of spurring sympathy towards victims. But this psychological connection between outrage and sympathy should not fool us into thinking that people must suffer injustice to warrant assistance.

In truth, there is no morally relevant distinction between refugees and economic migrants. There is no reason to think of Syrians fleeing war as “the good ones we ought to protect” and Nigerians or Pakistanis fleeing poverty as “bogus claimants” who are “abusing the system”. The current crisis demands a humane response. Continuing to make morally spurious distinctions can only hinder that endeavour.

Kieran Oberman
Kieran Oberman
Kieran Oberman is a Chancellor’s Fellow at the University of Edinburgh. His research is in various areas of political philosophy, including war, poverty and migration and has appeared in Ethics, American Political Science Review and Political Studies. His forthcoming article, “Immigration as a Human Right“, and other pre-publications, are available from He is a co-director of the Just World Institute.
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A would-be immigrant crawls on the beach after his arrival on a makeshift boat on the Gran Tarajal beach in Spain's Canary Island of Fuerteventura in this May 5, 2006 file photo. 

Juan Medina: I heard about a makeshift boat carrying migrants from Africa was on its way to the beach at Gran Tarajal, south of the island of Fuerteventura so I rushed there.

When I arrived, the migrants, who risk their lives trying to reach European soil in flimsy boats, were being treated by members of the Spanish Red Cross who were providing them with clothes and water. They were exhausted from their perilous journey.

The strength of this image is that it shows the contrasts in our society: on one side of the photograph you have people who seem to be enjoying the sun on the beach and on the other a man crawling through the sand after risking his life at sea.

It was challenging to show as clearly as possible the inhumane conditions African migrants must endure in order to reach Europe. But there are also many things that this image doesn't show but that are very important in explaining why these people risk so much. For example, we don't get to see the suffering and solitude they endure after leaving their families behind.

I believe images that tell the stories of the migrants should affect everyone. Nobody should be immune to the plight of these people.    REUTERS/Juan Medina/Files  (SPAIN - Tags: CIVIL UNREST SOCIETY IMMIGRATION TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY)