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  • Jon Purizhansky

The Misleading Definitions of “Refugee” and “Migrant”

The migrant crisis in North and South America, not unlike the European crisis before it, has brought into question the practicality of long-used terms like “refugee” and “economic migrant.” The United Nation’s 1951 Refugee Convention defined a refugee as a person who has “a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion.” In the 1980 Refugee Act, Congress consecrated that description in U.S. law as well. However, the 1951 definition was created to address the ferments of the early Cold War, especially the emigration of Soviet protestors. These days most migrants aren’t fleeing authoritative regimes that are out to get them. Nor are they merely seeking better economic opportunities. Rather, they are fleeing from states that have collapsed or that are so brittle that life has become unbearable for their citizens. Jon Purizhansky of Buffalo, NY recognizes the problems inherent in adhering to outdated terminology.

What Europe witnessed in 2015 and what much of the Americas are experiencing today are not simply refugee currents or market-driven population drifts but rather migration for the sole purpose of survival. From 2003-2010, roughly two million people from Zimbabwe fled to South Africa and other proximal states. Many of them sought to escape inflation, bandits, and food scarcity, namely, the economic consequences of the elemental political situation, as opposed to explicit political persecution. Because most of these migrants could neither be described as either refugees or economic migrants, humanitarian aid surrounding the crisis was hindered. Jon Purizhansky maintains that these outdated conventions and definitions need to be re-examined.

A great number of the migrants who arrived in Europe in 2015, chiefly those from Syria, were undeniably refugees under the 1951 Refugee Convention. Other refugees, including some Kosovars and Albanians who used the Balkan paths toward Germany along with the Syrians, were simply economic migrants. But large numbers of those traversing the Aegean were escaping delicate states such as Iraq and Afghanistan. European governments were mostly unsure of how to label these migrants. In the first few months of 2019, 46% of Iraqi asylum seekers were recognized in Germany, compared with 13% in the UK.

Jon Purizhansky : Petitioners from failed or delicate Middle Eastern or sub-Saharan African countries faced, and continue to face, a recognition lottery of sorts whose outcome depends on whether judges and bureaucrats are prepared to reconcile today’s circumstances with Cold War categories. However, few European governments had any desire to abandon the old language and categories. Governments led by right-of-center parties didn’t wish to risk exposing themselves to possibly increased obligations and those led by left-of-center parties didn’t wish to risk threatening the 1951 Refugee Convention.

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