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The False Distinction Between “Migrant” and “Refugee”


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In the wake of Donald Trump’s recent xenophobic narrowing of the criteria for people to seek asylum in the US, the New Yorker’s Masha Gessen rejects the distinction between “migrant” and “refugee” that has been used in part to justify these restrictions. According to Gessen, this category distinction is untenable and immoral in a global situation where climate change and extreme poverty are forcing populations all over the world to migrate in order to survive. Here’s an excerpt:

This story of undeservedness rests on the distinction between refugees and migrants; the latter word has come into particularly wide usage since the so-called caravan became a feature of Trump’s campaigning in advance of the midterm elections. The people coming to the border from Latin America are fleeing gang violence and extreme poverty. Under existing U.S. asylum rules, neither circumstance would entitle them to asylum protection, though the Obama Administration recognized the fear of gang violence as grounds for asylum. But the distinction between the two words is a legal fiction: it asserts that economic hardship is somehow separate from political disenfranchisement and political persecution. Implicit in this claim is the view that economic inequality across nations is somehow natural, and therefore the citizens of wealthier nations have no responsibility to shelter those who are fleeing poverty elsewhere. The distinction between political and economic migrants is relatively new, dating to the second half of the twentieth century. But now that climate change is displacing tens of millions of people, its immorality comes into ever greater relief.

Many arguments have been, and will continue to be, advanced for the distinction between refugee and migrant, as well as for the creation of the ports of entry, for Trump’s proclamation, and even for the border wall itself. All of these arguments are founded on the understanding that free movement of people across borders is undesirable, frightening, and ultimately impossible. As long as this premise goes unchallenged, people who think of themselves as good and compassionate will be able to support Trump and his Administration’s war on immigrants.

Image via the New Yorker.