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

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