Refugees and UK Immigration: Explained

When did the European migration crisis turn into a refugee crisis? What’s the difference, and what does it have to do with immigration?

By Bobbie Mills

Migration, what?

Whatever you think about migration, chances are you will agree that what has been happening across Europe over the past few months is a shocking mess. Over 2,500 are estimated to have died in the Mediterranean Sea since the start of 2015. Sadly, this is nothing new. The conflict in Syria mean that thousands more have judged it time to leave, adding to the 11 million already displaced in and around Syria and adding to the thousands making the journey to Europe. It would be fair to say that the situation has stepped up a bit.

If this has been going on for a while, why are we taking notice now?

In late July, a lorry strike brought Britain’s attention to a “swarm” of so-called “marauding migrants” attempting to cross through the Channel Tunnel from Calais to England.

It could be argued that calls to send in the army were a little hysterical considering that the number of migrants trying enter Britain are a fraction of those in Europe. News also came of thousands of people in Hungary demanding to get on trains to Germany. Images of bodies washed up on beaches in Turkey, especially one of a toddler, caused moral outrage and European leaders came under pressure to take in refugees.

What are the facts?

Immigration statistics on a chalkboard - Via

Immigration statistics… or should that be refugee statistics? Via Facebook

David Cameron announced on Monday that Britain will take 20,000 Syrian refugees over the next 5 years.

Sound good?

Not compared with Germany. The German Vice Chancellor has said it can handle up to 500,000 asylum seekers every year for the next few years!

The cheeky twist to Britain’s response is that the people it will host will be transferred directly from the refugee camps established in Syria and the surrounding area.

What about all those migrants already in Europe? The upshot is Britain won’t be taking them.

The British government reckons that taking in people already in Europe will encourage yet more to pay smugglers and to make the dangerous journey. How will residents of Kent and Calais feel about this? The situation isn’t going away on its own.

Another reason given for not taking in people who are already in Europe is, basically, that not all of them deserve Britain’s help.

Responding to claims that Britain is a “fucking disgrace” for not taking its share of Europe’s asylum seekers, Boris Johnson makes one point plain and simple: not all of these people are genuine refugees – many are “migrants”.

So… refugees good… migrants bad?


UNHCR poster "Refugee or Migrant (C) Andrew McConnell

Choose your words with care

Hold up. What’s the difference between a “refugee” and a “migrant”?

Whether someone is considered a migrant or a refugee has massive and immediate impact on their life, and also on the countries and towns we live in.

A refugee is a specific legal category, defined by the United Nations 1951 Refugee Convention as someone who:

“owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality, and is unable to, or owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country.”

A person is a refugee if they have been awarded refugee status by a state, or registered by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). Refugees are legally entitled to a set of protections and cannot be sent back to the country they have sought refuge from. Whilst awaiting a decision on their asylum application, asylum seekers are not permitted to work in the UK and may be detained to make sure they don’t disappear. Charming.

“No universally accepted meaning.”


‘Migrant’ is a much more wishy-washy word with no universally accepted meaning. If we go with the United Nations definition like we did for our refugee definition, their recommendations on migration statistics define an international migrant as “any person who changes his or her country of usual residence.” Simples.

Yet this is not what most people think of when they hear the word “migrants”. We tend to picture a specific type of migrant – an economic migrant. Economic migrants change their country of residence for economic reasons like work and better wages.

Britain, like most rich countries, has a never-ending debate about whether this kind of immigration is good for the country.

Some reckon that letting people come is an important part of Britain. After all migrants do jobs that most UK nationals just won’t do, like fruit and flower picking bent double for long hours. They bring skills that Britain is short of, like nursing and construction. There are also people who really value diversity. These people may also reckon that the world would be better if we were able to share its resources more evenly.

Opposing these views are people who feel that, given high levels of youth employment, if the UK is lacking skills then Brits should be being trained rather than foreigners being hired in. As well as worries about migrants taking British jobs, people also fret about non-Brits living off unemployment and housing benefit. You can’t have it both ways.

Also, some people feel that the rate of UK immigration is ‘too much, too fast’ as they feel neighbourhoods have changed rapidly.

A sideline to this debate is fears over “illegal immigrants”. These are considered to be economic migrants who have entered the country without a proper visa. People who do not have permission to reside in the UK can be detained and deported.

EXPLORE: a guide to immigration in the UK

Why does the difference between ‘refugee’ and ‘migrant’ even matter at a time like this?


Graphic showing where Syrian Refugees are going.

Calling refugee families fleeing a civil war in Syria “migrants” could be a little unfair.

A debate on the language we use to talk about people who move from country to country has blown up out of the current migrant crisis… I mean refugee crisis… or do I mean migrant and refugee crisis?

Let’s go back to the start. All the jibber-jabber began when Al Jazeera announced it would no longer use the term ‘migrants’ to describe what was going on in the Mediterranean. ‘Migrant’ – it argued – had become a dehumanising, inaccurate term, undermining the value of the lives lost at sea:

“It is not hundreds of people who drown when a boat goes down in the Mediterranean, nor even hundreds of refugees. It is hundreds of migrants. It is not a person – like you, filled with thoughts and history and hopes – who is on the tracks delaying a train. It is a migrant. A nuisance.”

‘Refugee’ became the choice replacement – because the majority of the people at the borders are escaping war and persecution.

This was received really, really well. The United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) circulated the graphic pictured above and a petition requesting the BBC to use the “correct” term for the refugee crisis gained nearly 75,000 signatures.

Here is how these groups are distinguishing migrants from refugees:

“All the prominent English language dictionaries define a migrant as someone who moves from one country to another in search of work and better living standards. A refugee, on the other hand, is defined as someone who is forced to leave their country in order to escape war and persecution.”

The difference rides on people choosing to move, and people being forced to move.

The problem: the difference between the two is not as straightforward as all these articles suggest. It’s the total opposite of straightforward. We had better do some explaining;

Who the hell do they think they are?

Refugee crisis: a sign says "Seeking asylum is a human right"?

If true, why do we demonize those attempting to get into the country?

The million dollar question: who can really tell the difference between force and choice?

Research tells us there is little difference between the people who apply for asylum and those who do not. When someone leaves their home, is it because of corruption and violence or because they’ve been unable to find work? Aren’t the two connected? If it were you would you feel you had any choice in the matter?

No one wants to undermine the troubles of people leaving Syria; some would argue we shouldn’t undermine the problems of other migrants, either.

The petitions have got one thing right, the word ‘migrant’ certainly is dehumanising. However, insisting on calling them ‘refugees’ instead does not solve the problem. This is because it accepts the worthlessness attached to the lives of ‘migrants’, arguing that ‘refugees’ are a fundamentally different kind of people who are more worthy of help and compassion.

As Professor Jørgen Carling argues:

When people drown at sea or suffocate in lorries, our first question should not be ‘so, which kind were they, refugees or migrants?’”

At Scenes of Reason, we reckon there is one thing missing from this debate: how do these people who are moving actually want to be seen? Who do they think they are, and who do they want to be?

Our media has given us the idea that everyone arriving in Europe would like to qualify as a refugee. But there are accounts (read page 66) of the shame that some people feel on becoming refugees. This is understandable – no one likes to be a burden on anyone else. Rather than the protection afforded by refugee status, some people would prefer a work permit and the opportunity to make their own way. What do you think? Beggars can’t be choosers?

Neither ‘migrant’ or ‘refugee’ are perfect as labels. The resounding message from people interviewed in camps is that they are people too. So, why not just call them people?

Explore: Why are these refugees all hench lads with iPads? What should a refugee look like?

Migrants, good or bad? Are we asking the wrong question?

The refugee crisis ... explained with a Nicholas Cage gif. Sometimes there are no answers.

Nuff said.

This is a bit like the question ‘Nicolas Cage, good or bad?’ No one knows the answer because there isn’t one!!!

The debate on immigration has been going on pretty much the same way since forever. Have a read of Enoch Powell’s famous ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech – delivered to a Conservative Association meeting in 1968 – to get an idea of just how much the debate in Britain has changed since then (hint: it hasn’t changed much).

It can always be argued that migration is good in some ways, bad in others. It may seem like a cop-out not to be getting down and dirty with the evidence for and against.  Yet there is so much contradictory evidence out there that we begin to wonder: are we asking the wrong question?

Migration is neither fundamentally good nor fundamentally bad. It is normal and is not going to go away. The question that needs asking is how it is managed. This involves a lot of difficulties, like concerns about integration.

However, the bottom line is:  the current ‘keep-them-out’ tactic is causing deaths.

What has this got to do with what is happening now with the refugee crisis?

Graphic outlining refugee deaths in the Mediterranean. Refugees are crossing from Syria and Iraq to Turkey.

Can you see the pattern? Via

Issuing key guidelines for dealing with what is happening in Europe right now, UNHCR chief António Guterres encouraged a common strategy but ultimately warned that “none of these efforts will be effective without opening up more opportunities for people to come legally to Europe”.

This involves expanding visa programmes, scholarships and all other ways to migrate legally outside of the refugee system. This, he says, will “reduce the number of those who are forced to risk their lives at sea for lack of alternative options.”

Who is right?

Boris Johnson, who says that “the first step to finding a constructive way forward” is “recognising that not all migrants are refugees”, or UNHCR chief Guterres, who reckons that solving the current crisis cannot be done without opening up borders to more legal migrants?

You decide.

Refugees Crisis Explained: the difference between “migrants” and “refugees” is not as straightforward as we think.

We’re now analysing the language we use to describe people who move from country to country. Should we have started doing that a long time ago? Should we think of the current refugee crisis as part of a much bigger, longer conversation on migration?

Bobbie has just finished an MSc in Migration Studies at the University of Oxford. She writes on politics, the media and migration and lives in North London @MsBobbieMills

Like, Share and Subscribe. Sign up to our weekly news explainer The Week: Decoded, like us on Facebook and follow@scenesofreason

Everything you need to know about Syria from the news

Update: On Wednesday 2nd December 2015 British MPs voted in favour of using airstrikes on the so-called Islamic State (ISIS) in Syria.  This article was written before the vote and explored the situation in Syria.


What’s going on in Syria?

graffiti image of President Assad in Syria

Graffiti image of President Assad in Syria

Syria has been in the midst of a civil war since 2011. Since 2000, the country has been under the rule of a supposed dictator, President Bashar Al-Assad.

Protests over the imprisonment of a group of children in 2011 led to a rebel uprising. Now the Syrian government is fighting against thousands of rebel groups. Throw in an extremist Islamic group called Islamic State, and it’s easy to see why the UK government is advising people NOT to go to Syria.The rebel groups are fighting to change the way the country is governed for political reasons. The Islamic extremists want the country to be ruled under Islamic law.

The UK government voted against getting involved in Syria in 2013. Later it was revealed that UK pilots have been helping with American airstrikes. Recent attacks have unearthed the debate on whether the UK should enter Syria today.


OK, I think I want a little more detail – What’s Syria’s history?

Map of Syria in the Middle East

Where we talking?

Syria is a country in the Middle East in between Iraq and Turkey. Over the last century power struggles have rocketed.

Syria considers itself a republic. It has an elected President and a government. But in reality the country has been ruled as a dictatorship; where one individual has absolute power.

The current President Bashar Al-Assad took office in 2000 after the death of his father, who had ruled since the 1970s. Assad has been described as a dictator; removing anyone who stands up to him, and the evidence we have supports this. Human rights activists claim that his opponents are often tortured and killed. Social media websites and online chat rooms are also routinely blocked. 

The majority of Syrian Muslims belong to a branch of the Islam faith called Sunni Islam. President Assad is part of a separate group; the Alawites. This is part of a smaller branch of Islam; called Shia Islam. Most of Syria’s ruling class are Alawites. Why are we stating this? History has taught us that Middle Eastern religious differences often translate into political tensions.

Sunni and Shia Islam; what’s the difference?


Why was there a civil war?

In 2011 a group of children were arrested for writing anti-government messages on a wall. It was reported that they were also tortured. Peaceful protests called for the release of the children and for changes in the way the country was run.

Protesters called for democracy and an end to the oppressive regime led by Assad. Instead the Syrian authorities sent in the riot police, who opened fire and killed four people. Violent protests began throughout the country and rebel groups began organising and fighting back. To date more than 200,000 people have been killed as a result of the conflict. 


When did the USA and the UK get involved?

MOUNTAIN HOME AIR FORCE BASE, Idaho -- Two F-15E Strike Eagles perform a low-level training mission  over the Sawtooth Mountain Range. The Strike Eagles give the 366th Fighter Wing here sophisticated air-to-ground attack capabilities and air-to-air superiority. They can be equipped with both laser-guided weapons and air-to-air missiles, and use the low-altitude navigation and targeting infrared for night, or LANTIRN system, to find and destroy targets at night in all kinds of weather with  precision. (U.S. Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. Debbie Hernandez) Syria

UK pilots have been assisting US airstrikes over Syria

In recent years Syria’s relationship with the West has gone sour. This is partly due to Syria’s military actions in parts of the Middle East and its poor human rights record. It didn’t help when in 2009 man-made Nuclear materials were discovered in Syria. The Islamic State are of course not the biggest fans of the West either. 

The international community considered stepping in when it was reported that both the Syrian government and rebel groups were committing war crimes.

In 2013 bombs were dropped just outside of Damascus releasing deadly Sarin gas. Western countries blamed the Syrian government; and the government blamed the rebels. President Assad eventually agreed to the destruction of all chemical weapons belonging to the Syrian authorities, when the USA said “any more of that and we’ll come to sort this mess”.

Since then the United Nations security council has heard further reports of chemical attacks on rebel territories in the north. Given the West has their own battle with the so-called Islamic State or ISIS, the USA and other countries found enough reason to eventually get involved, and collectively have carried out over 1,600 airstrikes against Islamic State targets in Syria. The UK government voted against military action in Syria in 2013, however the UK government has some explaining to do; it’s been reported that UK pilots took part in airstrikes despite the vote against military action.

What we should question at this point: Is the West’s involvement to help the people of Syria or as a vendetta against ISIS?


And what has ISIS got to do with all this?

The self-proclaimed Islamic State (ISIS) took advantage of the chaos created by the civil war in order to work towards their goals. Fighters for IS want to create an Islamic state. They call it a caliphate. This is a universal state-run under Muslim Sharia Law; derived from teachings in the Qur’an – Islam’s holy book. Islamic State is led by Sunni Muslims.

Broadcasters refer to ISIS as the “so-called” or “self-styled” Islamic State to show that they do not recognise the Islamist group as a state. Politicians have also started calling them Daesh which the group finds offensive.

READ MORE: our five-part series “ISIS explained”

Islamic State declared the Caliphate in 2014. Since then they’ve been attacking high-profile targets and taking hostages. The US has just changed its policy on ransoms for hostages; allowing family members to pay to get their loved ones back. IS have also made Christianity punishable by death. Islamic State fighters control areas in northern Iraq and northern Syria. Having taken over oil and gas fields, their daily revenue is estimated at $3,000,000.


Who controls Syria now?

Current situation in Syria. Red: Syrian government. Grey: ISIS Green: Opposition groups. Yellow: Kurds  Source: Wikipedia (this image dated  30 November 2015)

Current situation in Syria. Red: Syrian government. Grey: ISIS Green: Opposition groups. Yellow: Kurds
Source: Wikipedia (this image dated 30 November 2015)

Bashar Al-Assad is still President, but Syrian authorities have lost control of large parts of the country. Territory boundaries change every day; intelligence from even a few weeks ago is largely useless.

Government forces control the West of the country. Rebel groups control the North. In the East a group of Kurdish fighters are also fighting against ISIS.

Islamic State is said to control 50% of Syria’s land, according to The Guardian. The group controls land through the middle of Syria with support networks throughout other areas. The rise of the Islamic group has also brought a religious aspect to what began as a political struggle.

The opposition against the Syrian authorities and President Assad is… a bit of a mess. It’s estimated that there are over 1,000 rebels groups in the country. Many different alliances have been formed. The four main coalitions are; the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, the Syrian National Council (SNC), the National Coordination Committee (NCC) and the Kurdish Supreme Committee. So far they’ve been unable to agree on a strategy to combat Assad. Ever thought of working together, guys?

Four million people have left the country since the start of the conflict. These migrants have been travelling through countries like Libya, attempting to reach safety in Europe. That hasn’t stopped UK citizens travelling to the country and joining forces with Islamic State.


Syria learnings: It’s not all about the Islamic State

UK involvement should not be deliberated lightly. If we’re fighting ISIS in Syria should we be thinking more carefully about the consequences?


Subscribe to our weekly explainer The Week: Decoded, like us on Facebook and follow @scenesofreason