Refugees vs Migrants: understanding the difference
Amjad Saleeem November 11, 2015

Refugees vs Migrants: understanding the difference

Ahead of the session on migration and resilience, Amjad Saleem blogs on how climate change, conflict and cultural divides have made global migration and refugee crises a hot topic for the Commonwealth People’s Forum. 

The current debates in Europe with regards the refugee crisis has captured headlines. Yet beyond the sound bites, it is clear that the arguments have become confused and terminologies conflated between migrants and refugees. Thus what we have is then a genuine debate on the refugee crisis being diluted with a toxic debate on migration. Add to the mix a politicisation of the argument based on a securitisation agenda and you have a highly emotive discussion bereft of proper analysis and knowledge.

So the first step in discussing this issue is to unpack the difference between refugees and migrants.  For a clearer respective definitions I would suggest also visiting the UNHCR and IOM websites. However it is important to understand that refugees are those that have been displaced due to a disaster, more of than not as a result of conflict.

It is now estimated by the UN that almost 60 million plus people have been displaced, making it the highest since 1945 (World Humanitarian Summit). On top of this, it is now estimated that it will take about 17 years on average for people to be displaced, which means that the refugee crisis becomes prolonged putting a strain on humanitarian financing.  Already this is beginning to show, for example out of a total of $19.5bn pledged by the UN in 2014, less than 70% UN funding requirement were met last year, leaving $7.5bn an unmet funding gap.

Underlying some of the causes for current conflicts are some cross-cutting characteristics including: the rise of violent non-state actors and the prevalence of civil wars; deep socio-political and ethno-religious cleavages; huge levels of mistrust and intolerance; constantly changing alliances, loyalties and relationships; changing frontlines and territorial control; destruction of social infrastructures and services; and links to natural resources. While politics, faith, identity and rights are often the foreground factors for any conflict (i.e. these are the issues that people fight for and against), it is important to pay attention to the long-term systemic issues that increase conflict. One that is of significant importance to Commonwealth nations is that of climate change.

For the Commonwealth group of nations, which comprises a majority of Small Island States and agriculturally based economies, climate change is a stark reality. For the past 20 years there has been a consensus that global policy on climate change should aim to keep the increase in average global temperature to less than 2°C above pre-industrial temperatures. Today, the 2°C world seems a fading dream and even if the world economy is decarbonised at an impossible rate, the consequences of previous greenhouse gas emissions will keep unfolding for decades to come. The consequent changes in our natural environment will have social, economic and, in many places, political effects. Meanwhile the interaction of the changing climate with other features of the socio-economic and political landscape offers new challenges to human security. Thus human security will become more vulnerable, more costly and more complex, with conflict as one of the consequences. In particular for the Commonwealth group of nations which comprises a majority of Small Island States and agriculturally based economies, climate change is a stark reality. As the very existence of nations and communities is under threat, issues related to conflict and community relations are heightened.

The second aspect is that migration in its most basic form is taking place and is generally a fact of life. In 2010 it is estimated that there were over 220 million international migrants, more than double the figures recorded in 1980s (Goldin 2013). Coupled with this is the rapidly urbanising world, where more and more people are moving to cities. The World Migration Report 2015Migrants and Cities: New Partnerships to Manage Mobility explores how migration and migrants are shaping cities, and how the life of migrants, in turn, is shaped by cities, their people, organisations and rules. It is now clear that over 54% of people across the globe were living in urban areas in 2014 (UN DESA 2014), with an estimated rise in urban populations from the current figure of 3.9 billion is expected to some 6.4 billion by 2050 (ibid). Migration is driving much of the increase in urbanization, making cities much more diverse places to live. It is now estimated that three million people around the world are moving to cities every week (UN-Habitat, 2009Nearly one in five of the world foreign-born population resides in established global gateway cities (Çağlar 2014). It is no longer one way from the global south to the global north, but as a recent report on English emigrants showed, it is a two way process. As such in many of these cities such as Sydney, London and New York, migrants represent over a third of the population and, in some cities such as Brussels and Dubai, migrants account for more than half of the population. Globalisation has seen migration become transnational.

Diversity enriches economies by bringing fresh perspectives for problem solving. While there are numerous reasons that push people to migrate from the basic economic reason for seeking a better life to the social phenomenon of a better quality of life, the fact remains that migration increases social diversity. Diversity enriches economies by bringing fresh perspectives for problem solving. The World Bank estimates that increasing migration by 3% of the workforce in developed countries between 2005 and 2025 would result in global gains of US$336 billion, and completely opening the borders over the next 25 years would yield the world economy an extra $29 trillion and radically reduce poverty.

A recent article by the World Bank President alludes to the benefit that refugees like economic migrants in general bring to their host countries because they work hard and contribute more in taxes than they consume in social services. For example, as the article highlights, many of those Syrians who arrived in Turkey with assets have invested in Turkey. In 2014, Syrians accounted for 26 percent of the new foreign businesses registered in Turkey. Recent analysis by the World Bank shows that while the influx of Syrians has displaced Turkish workers from the informal labour market, those workers have also benefitted from a greater formalisation of the labour market, which has allowed them to move into formal jobs with better wages. Preliminary findings suggest that poverty rates fell faster in regions hosting Syrian refugees than elsewhere; more study is needed to learn whether the refugees’ arrival was a contributing factor.

Of course there is a worry about the strain on host countries with limited resources, and there needs to be a trade-off between countries accepting refugees and migrants; dealing with those left behind and dealing with the effect on indigenous populations in host countries. So the question is, how do we deal with this?

We have to ensure a much more rational debate to the issue. It can’t be done solely on competing values but more on competing evidence. Value based discussions have in the past polarised the arguments with each camp only entertaining those arguments and facts that support their prejudices. There needs to be rational discussions and pragmatic policies. For example, the government of Norway has strict rules about immigration and refugees, but ensures a very healthy aid and development budget to compensate for this.

We need long term political solutions to deal with causes of displacements and refugee crises. Thus discussions need to be pragmatic and address the short and long term solutions. For commonwealth civil society, this is where the discussion needs to start. We need long term political solutions to deal with causes of displacements and refugee crises. We also need short and medium term solutions to deal with the refugee crisis. For instance, there have been suggestions to generate global support for hosting refugees to help tackle the global refugee crisis. This could be in the form of an arrangement that includes: recognising host countries’ contributions; generating new and more effective partnerships to support host communities and refugees to their mutual benefit; committing to longer term, sustainable financial support for host countries, with particular attention to the terms of development finance in middle income countries; giving refugees self-reliance through access to education and livelihood opportunities; creating more equitable arrangements for their resettlement, including their safe passage; and supporting their safe and voluntary return.

We also need to deal with flow of migrants and workforces as a result of globalisation. This is more from an economic and trade policies.

We can’t afford to conflate the arguments between refugees and migrants any further. Refugees as a result of conflict will need support, but they are not to be seen as a problem or even a security risk.  Commonwealth civil society should perhaps play a more nuanced role in these discussions.