Asylum-seeker, refugee, or migrant?

Sonal Marwah Forced Displacement and Migration

Sonal Marwah

Published in The Ploughshares Monitor Volume 36 Issue 4 Winter 2015

Categorizing the multitude flowing into Europe is a source of fierce contention among EU member states

It is estimated that more than 860,000 people so far this year have crossed the Mediterranean Sea to enter Europe (UNHCR 2015a). Many others have tried, unsuccessfully (IOM 2015). This past September, Hungary’s prime minister stated that the “overwhelming majority” were not refugees, but economic migrants (T.N. 2015). There is little evidence for such a claim. Still, categorizing these people has been the source of fierce contention among European Union member states.

The source of the current crisis

Detection of unusually high irregular migration in the Mediterranean Sea began in 2011. “Arab Spring” pro-democracy uprisings began in Tunisia in December 2010 and quickly spread across northern Africa. Often such protests were met with violent suppression by national governments and many were forced to leave. Tunisians began arriving at the Italian island of Lampedusa, the closest European territory to Africa. In Libya, guest workers from sub-Saharan Africa fled the factional violence and unrest of the post-Gaddafi era.

The most recent surge of people to cross the Mediterranean consists primarily of Syrians fleeing a violent, deadlocked civil war. Other significant groups include Afghans and Eritreans, both trying to escape violence. Some come from poor and unstable countries such as South Sudan, Iraq, Somalia, and Pakistan. The intersecting “push factors”—factors that leave people with no choice but to leave their current situations—which contribute to this rising displacement of people include political oppression, sectarian violence, economic stagnation, misery, and general societal instability. The population influx is now the largest seen in Europe since the Second World War.

Asylum-seeker, refugee, or migrant?

How exactly do we categorize the thousands of people coming into Europe?

  • An asylum-seeker is someone who says s/he is a refugee, but whose claim has not yet been definitively evaluated by national asylum systems or the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR 2015b).
  • According to the 1951 Convention on the Status of Refugees, a refugee is someone with a well-founded fear of persecution based on race, religion, nationality, membership in a social group, or political opinion, seeking international protection abroad (UNHCR 2015d).
  • An economic migrant is an individual whose primary motivation for leaving a home country is economic gain, often in response to unstable living conditions there (Park 2015).

The international obligations of states to these groups vary, depending on the category. Refugees have a right to seek asylum and claim refugee status. States formulate their refugee policies and justify quotas on the basis of their perceived capacity to offer residence and rights to non-nationals, and the number of non-nationals claiming protection (Mouzourakis 2014). However, while distinctions between refugees and economic migrants may appear straightforward in international law, in practice they are anything but.

People searching for protection and those searching for opportunity share a sense of insecurity. An expert on refugee subjects, Alexander Betts, states that some people do not neatly fit the definition of refugees, but are escaping situations in which they were deprived of socio-economic rights; he calls them “survival migrants” (Betts 2013).

From 2002-2010, the largest group of asylum seekers in the world were Zimbabweans fleeing Robert Mugabe. Of the two million who went to South Africa, about 10 per cent were recognized as refugees. The rest were not judged to fit the 1951 Convention definition. As many as 300,000 a year were detained and returned to a desperate situation of complete economic and political collapse (Betts 2013). Many of those now crossing the Mediterranean and labeled economic migrants could arguably be survival migrants, fleeing fragile and failed states in Africa and the Middle East.

Refugees, economic migrants, and survival migrants are all arriving on Europe’s southern shores.

Boat migration

Protracted violence, deteriorating conditions, and a lack of jobs in refugee-hosting countries such as Jordan and Lebanon force people to seek a better and safer life elsewhere. With few if any legal exit routes open, people pay smugglers to help them cross the Mediterranean.

Refugees and migrants sit side by side in dinghies and other unworthy sea boats. Many die at sea. In the past two decades, nearly 20,000 people are known to have perished while trying to reach Europe from Africa and the Middle East (Shenker 2013). In one incident in October 2013, as many as 366 people died when their boat capsized half a nautical mile from the Italian island of Lampedusa (Squires 2013). Many more deaths are unrecorded. The UN and other international humanitarian organizations involved in Mediterranean rescue operations have indicated that many who perished at sea were refugees who would have qualified for protection had they reached shore.

Boat migration has commanded strong international attention from policymakers, who are challenged to coordinate an interstate, sustainable Mediterranean surveillance program that saves lives, instead of focusing on preventing refugees and migrants from reaching European territory (Shenker 2013). At the same time, the need for refugees to resort to criminal groups itself constitutes a humanitarian crisis.

When migrants and refugees (together constituting a “mixed flow”) reach land, they are often treated alike by border security forces, even though states have particular obligations to refugees. An expert on maritime migration notes that the states often apply blanket measures, without any screening for an individual’s need for protection (Kumin 2014). When screening does takes place, it is mainly to identify refugees. This practice can delegitimize those who do not qualify as conventional refugees and negatively affect how they are treated. An International Organization for Migration (IOM) report indicates that any mixed flow will include individuals who have distinct vulnerabilities that merit special attention to protect their human rights (IOM 2008).

The Dublin Regulation

Under Europe’s Dublin Regulation, asylum seekers must register and remain in the first European country they are known to have entered. This control was established to increase the efficiency of Europe’s asylum system and ensure higher standards of protection for asylum seekers. But the current migration crisis has fundamentally weakened this regulation by placing a disproportionate responsibility on frontline states.

Travelers across the Mediterranean land first at island communities in Greece and Italy (Spindler 2015). Both these countries are close to the countries of origin of migrant and refugee populations. In 2013, Greece received 11,400 asylum applicants; in 2014, 43,500—mostly from Syria, Afghanistan, and Iraq. In 2013, 43,000 and in 2014, 170,000 asylum claims were made in Italy by applicants from Eretria, Nigeria, Somalia, Syria, and Gambia (UNHCR 2015c).

If rigidly enforced, the Dublin Regulation would mean that Greece and Italy, countries unprepared to receive this scale of population influx and reeling from economic crises, would bear legal responsibility for all those reaching their shores.
Greece has a policy of systematically detaining irregular arrivals, including unaccompanied children and families. Its North Aegean and Dodecanese islands have received a disproportionately high number of asylum seekers, but reception centres are substandard, with few essential services. People are detained in over-crowded cells—as many as 53 people in a space meant for six (Cornish 2014).

Many are kept in prolonged detention, with devastating consequences on their physical and psychological health, and dignity (MSF 2014). The capacity of all Greek asylum facilities is severely strained.

UNHCR reported that by October 2015, half a million refugees and migrants had arrived in Greece (UN News Centre 2015).

Italy’s reception centres, such as the one in Lampedusa, have insufficient capacity and are unhygienic (Parvaz 2014). Some southern Italian ports have no reception facilities and no standard disembarkation procedures in place. There have been reports of poor treatment of migrants on the islands. As well, Italy in the past interdicted boats and towed them back to Libya without the required screening of people onboard (Frelick 2009).

International humanitarian organizations such as Médecins Sans Frontières have stepped in to provide medical and health assistance (MSF c.2009), and International Rescue Committee (2015) has provided clean water and sanitation, among other basic services. Many local Greek and Italian volunteers have acted with great courage and compassion. Such support, while welcome and critical, is no substitute for state action.

Sharing responsibility

Refugees and migrants landing in Greece and Italy are generally not interested in abiding by the Dublin Regulation. They prefer not to register in economically unstable countries, but want to go to places that offer economic security and jobs (OECD 2015). States, on the other hand, are using the Dublin Regulation to relieve themselves of responsibility for refugees and migrants by ensuring that they are not the first stop on migrant routes. For example, Hungary has built a 175-kilometre razor-wire fence on its border with Serbia; Hungary is no longer on the refugees’ and migrants’ route.

For months earlier this year the European Union rehashed debates on the very foundations of its asylum system, while those in need of protection existed in a legal vacuum. On September 22, EU interior ministers approved the relocation of 120,000 refugees across the European Union (EC 2015). While a restrictive immigration system and outmoded asylum regulations remain largely unaddressed, the relocation initiative constitutes a modest step in the right direction.

Safe from war, what’s next?

As Europe negotiates, the number of displaced people continues to grow in response to a multitude of factors, which go beyond the civil war in Syria. There is, for instance, a demand for cheap and undocumented labour in some countries of destination (UNODC 2015), a demand many migrants are eager to supply. Meanwhile, in the attempt to leave a worse situation for a better, these people are exposed to the dangers of boat migration and profit-seeking criminals. The urgent need for more legal migration channels is clear.

The migrant-versus-refugee debate, which continues to rage in Europe in
response to pressures in the Mediterranean, is counterproductive. It is time to meet current migration challenges with a more humane and unified response, and
in accordance with international obligations.


Betts, Alexander. 2013. State fragility, refugee status and “survival migration.” Forced Migration Review: Crisis. May.

Cornish, Stephen. 2014. The world faces the greatest migration crisis in decades. Closed doors don’t help. National Post, December 18.

European Commission. 2015. European Commission Statement following the decision at the Extraordinary Justice and Home Affairs Council to relocate 120,000 refugees, September 22.

Frelick, Bill. 2009. Pushed Back, Pushed Around. Human Rights Watch, September 21.

International Organization of Migration. 2015. Mediterranean arrivals near record 600,000, October 13.

—–. 2008. International Dialogue On Migration 2008: Challenges of Irregular Migration: Addressing Mixed Migration Flows. Discussion Note, November 7.

International Rescue Committee. 2015. Refugee crisis in Greece.

Kumin, Judith. 2014. The challenge of mixed migration by sea. Forced Migration Review: Crisis, February.

Médecins Sans Frontières. 2014. Invisible Suffering, April 1.

—–. c. 2009. Migrants, Refugees and Asylum Seekers: Vulnerable People at Europe’s Doorstep.

Mouzourakis, Minos. 2014. “Wrong number?” The use and misuse of asylum data in the European Union. CEPS Paper in Liberty and Security in Europe, No. 69, December.

Newland, Kathleen. 2014. Protection at sea: Addressing irregular maritime migration. Migration Policy Institute, December.

Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. 2015. Is this humanitarian migration crisis different? Migration Policy Debates, No. 7,

Park, Jeanne. 2015. Europe’s migration crisis. Council of Foreign Relations, September 23.

Parvaz, D. 2014. Migrants in Italy: Arrival and survival. Al Jazeera, July 17.
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Spindler, William. 2015. A Good Samaritan in Greece. UNHCR Tracks, July 6.
Squires, Nick. 2013. Italy mourns 300 dead in Lampedusa migrant boat tragedy. The Telegraph, October 4.

T.N. 2015. How many migrants to Europe are refugees? The Economist, September 7.

United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. 2015a. Refugees/Migrants Emergency Response – Mediterranean.

—–. 2015b. Asylum Seekers.

—–. 2015c. The sea route to Europe: The Mediterranean passage in the age of refugees. July 1.

—–. 2015d. The 1951 Refugee Convention.

UN News Centre. 2015. Greece’s overstretched reception centres may imperil EU-wide plan as arrivals hit half million mark – UN, October 20.

United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. 2015. Smuggling of migrations: the harsh search for a better life. Transnational Organized Crime–Migrant Smuggling.

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