When does a migrant become a refugee, and when does that become a 'crisis'?

  • Abdulaziz Ahmet YASAR
  • 4 Dec 2018

The people moving from one place to another are described in several ways, some portraying them as victims, some as outsiders. The list of terminology is long and here are the ones that are used the most.

Every year, hundreds of refugees are detained and deported back to their countries of origin, where war, persecution or economic instability makes their lives miserable. ( Reuters )

Is it necessary that a person should be a victim of war or persecution in order to be accepted in a foreign country?

We hear the news about migrants, refugees, people moving from one place to another, escaping war, trauma, famine, drastic climate change, or simply seeking a better future.

The perception toward such people has changed. They are often seen as outsiders, aiming to usurp economic opportunities or steal jobs. This prejudice is fuelled by many far-right politicians and media outlets.   

To understand the concept of migration, it's important to understand the circumstances that force people to leave their homes and take long, arduous journeys to other countries. 

Here's a quick breakdown on the most common words that are used to describe the people who move to another country. 

Migrants: A person or a group of persons moving from one country to another or within a country in search of a secure environment or better quality of life qualify as migrants and the entire phenomenon is called migration.  

Migrants can be asylum seekers, economic or climate change migrants or migrants of other causes.

Immigrants: This term has a negative connotation, while used in context of ‘undocumented migration’ and of ‘economic migrants’.

However, immigrants are humans who move to a foreign country they are not citizens of.

They can and most often are well documented and approved by both the countries of origin and host countries.

Some countries have adopted harsh policies against what they recognise as "illegal or undocumented" immigrants. These types of immigrants pay taxes, work in various fields, pay for all the services they utilise, yet the government does not give them the right to vote or to seek equal opportunity. The government instead perceives them as a problem.

In the US, there are about 11.7 million undocumented immigrants, many of whom were born and raised there.

Emigrants: Emigrants share a similar image to immigrants. The people who leave their country of origin and take a citizenship of another country in the long-term are emigrants. They emigrate (leave) their home country for better life conditions.

Emigrants and immigrants have the choice to stay in one or the another country, indifferent to asylum seekers and refugees.

Asylum seekers: They are migrants who demand refuge in another country on the basis of fleeing persecution in their home countries. They have no choice but to leave. If their asylum is guaranteed, they become recognised as 'refugees' with rights to take proper shelter and receive free food by the host countries.

For instance, Turkey recognises 3.5 million Syrians as refugees and looks after their welfare. 

Refugees - according to the UN, the IOM and Geneva Conventions

The UN Refugee Agency, also known as UNHCR, defines a refugee as "..someone who has been forced to flee his or her country because of persecution, war or violence."

The UN also identifies a refugee as "someone with a well-founded fear of persecution for reasons of race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a particular social group, who "cannot return home or are afraid to do so." This is a general definition, what happens in detail?

But how about the US-bound migration caravan from Central America? 

That's where it gets complicated.

Children are the worst victims of war and economic strife but many countries, including the US, do not consider that a reason enough to grant them an asylum.(AP)

Theory is not practice - the difficult reality of asylum seekers

The caravan was regarded by the US administration as 'economic migrants,' the people who wanted to leave their country to have more economic gains in a new country.

Migrants joining the caravan claimed to have no security of life in the countries they came from: to 80% from Honduras.
Honduras is considered the most violent ‘peacetime’ nation with 90 murders to 100,000 citizens before 2010. This number has fallen, but the brutal violence continues.

The US, in contrary, has been a popular destination for many migrants since the country's foundation was built on the idea of immigration, inspiring many people to pursue the "American dream," which meant equal opportunity and US citizenship if an immigrant paid taxes and followed the country's laws.   

But in the last few decades, the path to citizenship has gotten complicated, with many politicians questioning the country's immigration law. 

US President Donald Trump invoked the question of immigration during his electoral campaign, often tagging it with the word "illegal."

Long before Trump presidency, US had tightened the norms of immigration, making it difficult for people to move to the country, at times rejecting visa applications on whimsical grounds.  

So, even Hondurans are facing a overwhelmingly violent environment, without any perspectives for a better future and the lingering threat of murder, can they be considered as refugees by the US? That depends.

Indeed, the chance for migrants to settle down in another country not only depends on their own reality - but also on the political will of the host country.

International norms vs national will

The growing hostility toward migration has even impacted the UN Migration Pact, which aimed to address the issue of migration from a humanitarian perspective and signed in July this year. So far 12 countries, including the US, Australia, Italy have opposed the pact.

The Geneva Conventions on Refugees of 1951 and the Protocols afterwards have been ratified by 196 states today.

However, the final decision is on whether a state accepts a refugee as he or she is, or identifies him or her as an 'economic migrant of any other cause.'  If it's the latter one, the host countries aren't bound by providing welfare to them. 

The fundamental rights for refugees are manifested in International Law and the Geneva Conventions of 1951, but every state has its own sovereign decision to deal with it and every government follows a different 'asylum policy.'