When Is A Refugee Really A Migrant?

When Is A Refugee Really A Migrant?

It is important to understand who is trying desperately to get into Europe and exactly why they are.
Paul Bonicelli
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The latest report from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) reveals that the human wave from the Middle East crashing into Europe is made up overwhelmingly of adult males.

As European and American policymakers scramble to articulate policy positions on the spot in the face of a humanitarian disaster, it is important to understand who is trying desperately to get into the West and exactly why they are, even if such analysis will be treated as insensitivity. The fate of millions of human beings as well as the economic burdens for taxpayers in Western countries to assume requires careful thinking and strategizing.

Let’s Define Refugee

First, start with definitions. The UNHCR’s understanding is as good a place to start as any, since they are obligated to operate relief programs according to law. It matters whether we label those on the move as refugees or as migrants. Refugees are people fleeing persecution and armed conflict, and therefore have status in both national and international law. Signatories of the various United Nations (UN) charters and treaties are obligated to accord special consideration for people fleeing for their lives from aggressors or from the effects of collateral damage during conflicts.

To label a migrant a refugee can result in inappropriate pressure on countries to afford the migrant with relief he is not legally entitled to.

Migrants, on the other hand, are not fleeing physical harm or persecution but are abandoning their homes due to poverty, lack of work, or to reunite with family, and they are subject to national immigration laws. Conflating the two makes for bad policy decisions. To label a migrant a refugee can result in inappropriate pressure on countries to afford the migrant with relief he is not legally entitled to. To call a refugee a migrant can deprive the refugee of the more urgent assistance they need.

The UNHCR’s current designation of the people fleeing across the Mediterranean as both migrants and refugees is muddying the waters in light of the demographic data they are releasing. The agency recently provided a series of tables to explain who is coming from where, but few in the news media have noticed so far how overwhelmingly male and adult the wave of refugees or migrants is.

Where Are All the Women and Children?

This is perplexing. The vast majority of the wave is from war-torn countries, obviously, so we would assume the demographics would show the normal mix of both males and females, whether adults or children; a roughly 50-50 breakdown. It also would be reasonable to assume that whole families would come north in search of peace and stability.

Since more than 70 percent are adult males, one should ask, why such an age and gender breakdown?

But since more than 70 percent are adult males, one should ask, why such a gender breakdown? Why so few children compared to adults (only about 15 percent are children)?

This is the question policymakers need to be asking before they commit the dangerous error of emoting a policy position, as German Chancellor Angela Merkel appears to have done by promising that Germany will take upwards of 800,000 people—no matter what that means for southern and central Europe, which are the gateways to the continent.

After all, this catastrophe roiling Europe was caused by three things: 1) the years of liberal European Union policy on immigration; 2) Europe’s general lack of preparedness to deal with a frightening but steady influx that turned into a wave in the last couple of months; and 3) German insistence that all of Europe should be helping it do what so far only the German government’s conscience appears to be demanding. (Okay, and fecklessness regarding the violence consuming much of the Middle East is a cause, but that should be the subject of a different essay.)

This Oddity Requires Investigation

Let me bluntly suggest one possible reason why there are so many males and so few children and women: this is a migrant wave and not a refugee wave. That is, great numbers of men are fleeing countries that are mired in poverty and getting worse economically precisely because they are so ridden with conflict and also because they are governed by economic illiterates and kleptocrats.

They are fleeing poverty because for years Europe has been a haven for economic migrants.

They are fleeing such areas—as men have done for centuries—not simply because of violence, or they would be taking their families with them. Rather, they are fleeing poverty because for years Europe has been a haven for economic migrants and more lately Europe has allowed unusually large numbers to come in with no policy to deal with a massive upsurge of migration.

I offer no proof for this suggestion; that will require more digging by journalists and more data from people on the ground like the UN, the NGO community and European government officials. Perhaps that is already happening with this report out that the widely publicized drowned Syrian boy might not have been part of a group fleeing war-torn Syria. But until these questions are answered, it is foolish to make policy for this crisis and doubly foolish for European leaders to guilt one another into acting.

Paul Bonicelli serves as director of programs at the Acton Institute. His career includes a presidential appointment with Senate confirmation as assistant administrator at the U.S. Agency for International Development; as a professional staff member of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the U.S. House of Representatives; and as an official delegate to the United Nations General Assembly.

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