Published on Voices

Migrant or refugee: What’s in a name?

A family submitting an application at the UNHCR registration center
in Tripoli, Lebanon. Photo: Mohamed Azakir / World Bank

People are on the move. Train stations and border crossing points across large parts of Europe are overwhelmed by an unprecedented human wave. Political leaders run from summit to summit to try and articulate a response, but events move faster. Desperate people are taking formidable risks and go through unspeakable ordeals to have a chance to get to the EU. And even with the approaching winter, the flow does not seem to diminish.

Are these migrants or refugees?  In the face of tragic events, definitions and subtle distinctions may seem out of place.  Yet, words matter, as they largely define the political and legal environment in which people will settle. 

So what is the difference between an economic migrant and a refugee?  In principle, the response is clear: economic migrants are essentially people in search of opportunities for economic betterment , while refugees are fleeing a peril for their lives and their specific status is defined under the 1951 Geneva Convention. In other words, economic migration responds to a “pull factor”: migrants go to a country where they believe there is a demand for their skills. By contrast,  forcibly displaced people go to the first possible place where they can be safe  : it is a “push” factor.

Economic migration has well-documented benefits which derive from the complementarity between the migrants’ skills and the host labor market’s needs: these accrue to the host economy where the migrants fill a gap; to the migrants who have an increased income; and to the country of origin through remittances and knowledge transfers. Refugees, on the other hand, often arrive in a labor market where there is no demand for their skills, the “wrong” place from an economic perspective – which voids many of the potential economic benefits for themselves and their hosts.

Of course, the line can sometimes get blurred.  Some people migrate out of a war-torn country for economic reasons: for example, a large number of Somalis who had stayed in their country throughout the first two decades of war finally left after a drought in 2011. Even in such cases, economic destitution is often in large part a consequence of the conflict and of the collapse of trade channels, institutions, etc.  

Some political leaders in OECD countries have questioned the status of refugees who, after fleeing to a safe country, move once again to an equally safe, yet economically more attractive country: for example, Syrian refugees leaving camps in Turkey to go to the EU. But the primary cause of displacement remains the same, which is the need to flee. Therefore, refugees remain refugees even if they move: wouldn’t we say so of a Jewish person leaving Germany for the Netherlands in 1937 and continuing to Argentina in 1939?

What about climate change and natural disasters?  Aren’t these also causing displacement?  They are – but they also need to be distinguished from the refugee situation: fever can be caused by many ailments, each of which will require a specific treatment.  Natural disasters cause displacement, but if the situation is reasonably well managed and adequate aid is provided, it is often temporary. Most people return to their homes once their accommodation is rebuilt and they often continue to have access to their land, etc. This is very different from a refugee experience.  Climate-induced displacement are in many respects akin to economic migration: climate change causes poverty which in turn causes migration.

There is a third category emerging under our eyes that may require us to update our binary understanding of human mobility as migrants and refugees: desperate economic migrants. Desperate economic migrants are people who are not fleeing violence or persecution and hence do not qualify as refugees. Yet, the type of risks they are willing to take, the type of ordeals they are willing to go through, suggest that they have little choice but to move. 

These are the desperate Sahelians who are attempting to cross the Mediterranean on makeshift embarkations or the South Asian children their parents send alone across the Middle East so they can have a chance to eventually reach Europe. These are people whose economic destitution and prospects are such that they feel they have no choice but to take huge risks. In the face of such despair, traditional mechanisms for managing economic migration simply do not work, while refugee law does not apply. This is not a new phenomenon, but it has now reached such magnitude that it deserves some serious thinking. 

In the meantime, it is critical to choose words carefully as they do define the political and legal environment in which people who are on the move will be settled.   Refugees and economic migrants have different experiences, prospects, needs, and opportunities  .

Tackling fragility, conflict and violence at the World Bank Group
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Xavier Devictor

Co-Director, World Development Report 2023

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