The terms ‘refugees’ vs. ‘ordinary migrants'. How useful is the distinction for 20th-century histories of population movements and displacement?

Essay, 2019

9 Pages, Grade: 72


The twentieth century was an unprecedented era of mobility as, for a plethora of reasons, both refugees and ‘ordinary’ migrants crossed national and international boundaries. It was the century that witnessed the collapse of empires, two world wars, the emergence of the nation-state and growing internationalisation; all of which provided the conditions for global mass movement. Though there is a seeming consensus that this period was an ‘age of migration’, the extent to which the terms ‘refugee’ and ‘ordinary migrant’ are useful has been more heavily debated: states and international agencies often insist they are separate categories, despite copious evidence that, in practice, these labels are vague. By first tracing the history of the terms and then entering into a discussion about the usefulness of the distinction with a particular focus on the politicisation of labels, homogenisation of individuals and blurring of the terms, this essay will conclude that the crucial problem with the supposed dichotomy is that, in every form of migration, there is some degree of agency. Though labelling is necessary for legal grounds, in practice, there is a spectrum of migration, ranging from almost entirely involuntary to voluntary. Thus, for twentieth-century histories of population movement and displacement, the distinction between ‘refugee’ and ‘ordinary’ migrant is an artificial one that is problematic in the academic sphere: the categories are, in fact, significantly blurred and the only tool maintaining the distinction is the label of ‘refugee’ itself.

This essay will use the term ‘refugee’ as a distinct category of forced migrant, first coming into existence with the 1951 Refugee Convention to identify a person who, “owing to a well-founded fear of persecution,… is outside the country of his nationality and is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of that country.”1 Migration, on the other hand, is interpreted as a socio-economic phenomenon - people have the choice to move.2 Before the Convention, however, the categories were more fluid and international organisations tended to focus more upon long-term solutions than universal asylum. For example, the Nansen Passport in the 1920s was the first refugee travel document allowing the freedom of movement to find employment, ultimately helping refugees to become ‘ordinary’ migrants.3 It was only with the end of the Second World War that these identities became separated in order to provide an international protection framework to safeguard refugees ’rights of claiming admission and asylum, regardless of their economic status. Thus, 1951 can be recognised as year zero: though somewhat adapted by the 1967 Protocol which removed the temporal and spatial restrictions, the legal distinction between refugee and migrant has remained with us to this day.

However, these definitions are artificial constructs for legal purposes, ignoring the difficulty of distinguishing between voluntary and forced migration. There are three key issues with the terms refugee and migrant. First, despite the fact that nations tend to label people who cross borders as either refugees or voluntary economic migrants, the relationship is not dichotomous. Rather, they should be perceived as two poles on a spectrum due to the interdependence between economic, political, environmental and cultural motivations for movement. Thus, the definition enshrined in the Convention is too narrow and the distinction is an artificial construct, albeit one with important legal use. Second, as previously alluded to, there is no such thing as an ‘ordinary’ migrant as migration stems from an agglomeration of factors. The third issue is that the definition of ‘refugee’ is restricted to those internationally but not internally displaced persons. The Convention left other forced migrants, such as rural Salvadorans who moved to urban areas following the unrest in the 1980s, unaided.4 Essentially, rather than using opposing terms, there is a need (at least in the academic sphere) for a spectrum of migration when investigating twentieth-century history.

The distinction between ‘refugee’ and ‘ordinary’ migrant is further undermined by the fact that the supposed ‘universal’ legal definition of the Convention and Protocol was superseded on a regional level. For example, in 1969, in the midst of decolonisation, the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) stated that, rather than just being reserved for the persecuted, refugee-hood “shall also apply to every person who, owing to external aggression, occupation, foreign domination or events seriously disturbing public order…, is compelled to leave his place of habitual residence.”5 Similarly, in 1984, the Cartagena Declaration for Latin America included those affected by “generalised violence, foreign aggression, internal conflicts, massive violation of human rights or other circumstances which have seriously disturbed public order.”6 The diversity of definitions of a ‘refugee’ makes the distinction between them and migrants almost impossible to make, particularly when investigating the twentieth century.

This lack of universality and resulting nebulousness was effectively utilised by governments who politicised the terms ‘refugee’ and ‘migrant’ to serve national interests. For example, the Zionist movement aimed for the revival of a Jewish state in its ancestral home, contemporary Palestine, after two thousand years of ‘exile’. The new Israeli state fostered a collective memory stretching back to biblical times and the era of the Second Temple: there was an underlying contemporary narrative of returning home.7 This ‘memory’ was reinforced by the actions of the new state (who gave Hebrew names to Palestinian villages for example), ultimately inciting a nationalistic sentiment to Judaise Arab history and create a collective identity. Similarly, following the breakup of Yugoslavia in the early 1990s, the Austrian government instigated a restrictive immigration policy, using the nebulousness in the Convention’s clause “well-founded fear of persecution” in order to prevent asylum seekers from entering the country.8 For example, though until 1984 asylum seekers had a 50-80% chance of being recognised as political refugees in Austria, this figure fell to 10% by 1992 due to an ‘accelerated procedure’ which determined almost all applicants from Eastern Europe to be economically rather than politically motivated.9 Therefore, for twentieth-century histories of displacement, the dichotomous distinction between ‘refugee’ and ‘migrant’ is impractical: the pursuance of national interest blurred the definitions and bastardised the Convention.

Nowhere was this seen clearer than during the Cold War as the Western act of accepting asylum seekers from the Eastern bloc was heavily propagandised. For example, in US migration policy, refugees from the East were admitted outside immigration quotas on ostensibly humanitarian grounds10


1 Hein, J. (1993). ‘Refugees, Immigrants, and the State.’ Annual Review of Sociology, 19. p.44.

2 Long, K. (2013). ‘When refugees stopped being migrants: Movement, labour and humanitarian protection’. Migration Studies, 1(1), p.6.

3 Ibid. pp.9-10.

4 Hein. ‘Refugees, Immigrants, and the State’. p.49.

5 Shacknove, A. (1985). ‘Who Is a Refugee?’. Ethics, 95(2). pp.275-6.

6 Turton, D. (2003). ‘Conceptualising Forced Migration’. RSC Working Papers Series, 12. p.13.

7 Rotberg, R. (2007). Israeli and Palestinian narratives of conflict. Bloomington, Ind.: Indiana Univ. Press. p.148.

8 Hein. ‘Refugees, Immigrants, and the State’. p.44.

9 Fassmann, H. (2002). European migration in the late twentieth century. Aldershot: Elgar. pp.155-6.

10 Long. ‘When refugees stopped being migrants’. p.19.

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The terms ‘refugees’ vs. ‘ordinary migrants'. How useful is the distinction for 20th-century histories of population movements and displacement?
Oxford University
BA History
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ISBN (eBook)
transnational migration, migration, refugees, migrants, age of migration, mobility, internationalism, movement, displacement, definition, politicisation, asylum, zionism, unhcr, labelling, globalisation
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Sam Hines (Author), 2019, The terms ‘refugees’ vs. ‘ordinary migrants'. How useful is the distinction for 20th-century histories of population movements and displacement?, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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