1- Migrants, refugees, asylum-seekers

Wednesday 16 October 2019

1- Migrants, refugees, asylum-seekers



This document has so far mainly used the term “migrants” as an umbrella word for individuals who, for whatever reason, have moved to another country than the one they were born or brought up in.

“Migrant” is supposed to be a perfectly neutral term, since it does not refer to reasons for which the individual has moved to another country, but it is important to take into account that today it does carry, in various political and linguistic contexts, a negative undertone. This is particularly true when the term is used with adjectives such as “economic migrant” and, of course, “illegal migrant”. In Italy, for instance, the adjective “clandestini” (referring in principle to illegal entrants into the national territory) is now used by the government parties as a pejorative shortcut for all foreigners seeking refuge in the country, whatever their reason or status.

Even perfectly legal work migration – like EU nationals working in any of the 28 member states – may have, in specific national contexts, a negative connotation. In the UK, for instance, a big part of the Brexit referendum debate of 2016 focused on the number of intra-European migrants.

If one adds the national perspective, it is possible to speak of “immigrants” and “emigrants”. Strangely, in most European countries, the term “emigrants” is rather positively perceived: these are seen as individuals who were courageous enough to make their fortune in a foreign and difficult environment. The most successful among them are celebrated as historical role models. At the same time, the “immigrant”, who is nothing else than an “emigrant” from elsewhere, is often perceived as a potential threat.

It is also revealing that the term “expats” (short for “expatriates”) is used in English-speaking countries without any negative undertone – as long it refers to (mostly highly qualified) nationals who have decided to work or live in another country.

Overall, “migrant” remains a useful categorisation, but it does not have any legal meaning and nor does it make a person eligible to any judiciary status. And it is definitely a word that needs to be used with a high sensitivity for the local context.

Refugees / Asylum Seekers

As pointed out above, the term “refugee crisis” has imposed itself in reference to the peak and follow-up of the sudden and massive influx of individuals to Europe since 2015. This is mainly due to the fact that a large part of these migrants were known to be escaping situations of war, civil war, famine or persecution.

The official definition of the Geneva Convention of 1951 refers indeed to

“Any person who, owing to 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 or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country; or who, not having a nationality and being outside the country of his former habitual residence as a result of such events, is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to return to it.”

In order to obtain “refugee status” these individuals will apply for asylum, which is why the term “asylum-seeker” (and its variations in different languages) is also very commonly used. A recent guide published by the Sport Welcomes Refugees project, for instance, uses both “interchangeably to refer to everyone who has experienced forced migration or displacement”.[2]

In European law, individuals who fail to be eligible for being recognised as “refugee” may benefit from what is called “subsidiary protection”, if there are good reasons to believe that the person would face a real risk of suffering serious harm upon return to their country of origin. Both these categories are officially named “beneficiaries of international protection”.

It is worth noting that even the term “refugee”, which in principle simply describes a human being in need of protection, may be subject to interpretations depending on the local environment and dominant media discourse. In some contexts, the sheer number of refugees or the fact that a large part is of Muslim faith, may lead to conflations of categories. On a different note, in Germany, the suffix “-ling” in the word “Flüchtling” was perceived as adding a condescendant undertone, and it is sometimes recommended to speak of “Geflüchtete” (literally: “people who have fled”).

[2] Victoria Schwenzer (Camino), Sport Welcomes Refugees: A Guide to Good Practice in Europe. Berlin: 2018, p. 5.

Refugees / Asylum Seekers

Ethnic minorities

Several documents published prior to the peak of refugee influx in 2015 prefer to speak more generally of “ethnic minorities” in order to include other, not necessarily migrant, social groups whose exclusion may be addressed with the help of sport. While it may make sense for some actors to focus “on broader community inclusion rather than a focus on migrant groups per se” (Scottish FA), the term is problematic on a European level, since its understanding varies significantly between countries, depending on recent national histories.

For the FIRE project, clearly focused on recently arrived migrants, the expression “ethnic minorities” is little helpful, if not misleading.

Focus on heterogeneity

It is clear from the above that a clear terminology is lacking. How are we supposed to speak about these categories of human beings as we deal with potential partners from politics, business or civil society?

In some contexts, differentiating between legal categories is not helpful or useful in the implementation of concrete projects. As Krzysztof Jarymowicz from the Fundacja dla Wolności sums up, “in our projects we try to include all these groups and Polish citizens, and then offer special support to those who are in specific need.” It therefore makes sense, with almost all interlocutors, to insist on the large heterogeneity of personal situations and backgrounds that are encountered among migrant groups of different types. The one thing they have in common is that they are in need of help and assistance to establish contact with their host society.