Migrant or Refugee?

The ontology of refugee is the problem, not the solution.
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The ontology of refugee is the problem, not the solution.
Mogadishu, Somalia. (Photo: Sadik Gulec/Shutterstock)

Mogadishu, Somalia. (Photo: Sadik Gulec/Shutterstock)

Europe is not experiencing a migration crisis. Europe is experiencing a crisis of domestic reaction to migration. Newcomers from Poland are just as unwanted as those from Syria. The debate about whether or not a migrant is a refugee prolongs the crisis.

Refugee or migrant is a question for geographers, not lawyers or politicians. A "refugee" is a migrant worthy of special protections dictated by international treaty. How parties (i.e. nation states) interpret that treaty abrogate the legal obligations. Designating a newcomer as a refugee doesn't necessarily make her or his life better. Country governments are adept at working around the restrictions on power.

Welcome all migrants, refugees or otherwise. Welcome gentrifiers. Welcome Okies. Welcome tinkers and Roma. To migrate is to be human.

The United States distinguishes between wet feet and dry feet. Constitutional protections are better on the sand than in the sea. Thus, border patrol agents tackling would-be newcomers in the ocean off the coast of Florida would make the migrant much easier, legally, to return. Where you are determines your status as migrant or refugee, treaty be damned.

Uninvited, people are migrating to Europe for opportunity. Many leave behind situations much worse than those residing in Germany or the United Kingdom. But the rationale for moving to improve is the same as relocating from Yorkshire to London.

As for refugees, the internally displaced are afforded no human rights. One has to cross an international border to count. Just make sure to avoid international waters if you do escape the country.

Welcome all migrants, refugees or otherwise. Welcome gentrifiers. Welcome Okies. Welcome tinkers and Roma. To migrate is to be human. To be human is to migrate.

Jim Russell, a geographer studying the relationship between migration and economic development, writes regularly for Pacific Standard.

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