Why refugees are more than just forced migrants

Victoria Noya

The presence of the refugee crisis brings about a global awareness of refugees and asylum seekers, with humanitarian aid to match. Naturally, this cause is a no-brainer. The freedom to mobility is a fundamental human right, and so is the right to leave a life threatening area in search for a better life. However, in practice it is not so simple, because rights aren’t always followed by ability. Different situations are influenced by different degrees of freedom associated with them, which is especially true in the case of forced migration. The fewer degrees of freedom, the more vulnerable an individual or group, and the more vulnerable they seem, the less chances they have for a better life.

Degrees of freedom are linked to the options available. If the only options are to leave and live, or to stay and suffer, common sense indicates migration is “forced”. But in the same way that an individual or a group can be “forced” to migrate, so too can they be “forced” to stay. There is an economic cost to mobility, especially when escaping danger where the aim is to flee as far away as possible. As such, those without sufficient funds are “forced” not to move, which indicates that they have little freedom of mobility, which makes them even more vulnerable than those who managed to escape.

“Refugee” is a status given to a person who is unable or unwilling to return to their home country because of a threat to their lives, therefore they are under the protection of a government or country that is not their own. An asylum seeker is a person seeking to obtain refugee status. Yet it is not enough to consider the status by itself because the connotations of the words “refugee” and “asylum seeker” play a substantial role in the way policies are created and implemented. Put simply, the imagery of the helpless displaced migrants fleeing from danger associates the migrant with heightened vulnerability. That is not to say that they are not vulnerable, but assigning refugees vulnerability as their only trait means that the only attention they get is humanitarian aid. And because of this, governments tend not to get too involved with refugees. Indeed, since refugees are not part of the government’s political constituency, they tend not to incorporate refugees in development strategies. Some migrants are not necessarily part of government’s responsibility, asylum seekers or forced migrants without a status. Yet as humans, they have the right to development, which is difficult to access without a secured place to live, or without representation.

During the refugee crisis, it is the refugees that stand out, casting a shadow over those who were left behind. “Refugee” as a status, i.e. a place in the social structure of the destination country, suggests that they should be entitled to some sort of representation. Asylum seekers simply do not have that status. The simple recognition of refugees and asylum seekers in their host countries not only gives them a voice, but also enables them to contribute to society, and local economies, without relying so much on humanitarian aid.