Europe is in the midst of what’s being called a refugee or migrant crisis. Nearly 340,000 people have sought to cross European Union borders since January, including more than 100,000 in July alone.
As European leaders struggle to figure out how to handle this flow of new arrivals, the words “migrants” and “refugees” are often used interchangeably. However, these terms are very different.
Refugees are fleeing armed conflict or persecution, perhaps because of who they are, their race, religion or politics.
“In simplistic terms, the difference is between push and pull,” says Jim Hathaway, the director of the University of Michigan’s program in refugee and asylum law. “Life is never quite that simple, but a migrant is someone who chooses to move, rather than literally forced to move.”
Two-thirds of new arrivals to Europe are from Syria, Afghanistan, Somalia and Eritrea, says Bill Frelick, with Human Rights Watch. Those countries are referred to as “refugee producing states,” due to ongoing war or records of human rights abuses.
But Frelick also notes that “economic migrants” can also have compelling reasons to seek shelter in Europe.
“There certainly will be and are people who are in the mix who are economic migrants,” he says, referring to those who may be “fleeing some very telling situations of poverty, but who do not have a claim for international protection under the Refugee Convention and the other ‘instruments,’ as they’re called, for protecting people and not sending them back to their home countries.”
While leaving a country due to the consequences of climate change, famine or poverty may not feel like a choice, Frelick says those conditions do not qualify someone under 1951 Refugee Convention created in the wake of World War II.
What to do with those migrants is a “much bigger question,” says Guy Goodwin-Gill, emeritus fellow and professor of international refugee law at the University of Oxford.
“European countries, as have other countries, have accepted that we will provide protection to those in need of protection,” he explains. “But we haven’t come to any international agreement on how to resolve the situation of those who increasingly we see are desperate for survival.”
He says that’s “a generations-long question we have ahead of us.”
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