Refugee or Migrant?

Many tedious political debates revolve around the correct definition and application of words. The current migration/refugee crisis in Europe is no exception. A person can both be a migrant – in search of a better life – and a refugee, fleeing from political persecution. The right insists that they are migrants hence undeserving of our political protection while the left insists otherwise.  Yet so much of the debate seems to assume that the two motives are mutually exclusive. The fact is, the mass of Syrian refugees escaping the hell hole Syria has become are both migrants and refugees. For the purpose of simplicity, I will use the term refugee rather than some clumsy compound or some neologism. Just bear in mind I am talking about people who want both to be safe and have a better life.

Many of these refugees are from camps in Turkey where they were perfectly safe. This is true but misses the point. The masses deserting the camps do not want to live a life of safe but stagnant exile, which is the fate that probably awaits them, even if the war in Syria ends tomorrow. For neither conceivable outcome can possibly entice them back. Either the Assad regime collapses and we end up with a Somalia on the shores of the Mediterranean or it triumphs, but at the cost of reducing the country to a wasteland. And, while the war still rages, there is absolutely no question of going back. In many cases, what is there actually to go back to?

It’s not just safety that refugees seek in Europe as I have said before but a better life and there is nothing wrong with seeking both. The right condemns the desire for material improvement as ‘selfish’ but this is unfair and hypocritical. It’s unfair because anyone who lives in a country so dysfunctional that it cannot even provide the prospect of material improvement is one anyone with the wit to do so will desert. The right lack the political imagination to place themselves in other people’s shoes. It’s hypocritical because the right tends to extol the desire for material improvement among some people but not others. It is fine for white people to want higher living standards but not anyone else.

But the left cannot be let off the hook so easily here for they likewise share the right’s distaste for refugees’ material motives, albeit from a different perspective. The left can only love people of darker hues if they are fleeing for noble reasons, like artists and writers fleeing an oppressive climate of censorship. The left feels comfortable carrying placards saying, ‘I love refugees’ rather than ‘I love migrants’ but ‘refugees’ are no more or no less deserving of our ‘love’ than ‘migrants’ are. The left loves the oppressed masses just so long as they don’t lower themselves by talking about wanting cars, bigger houses (preferably not in a municipal tower block) and flat screen TVs. For different reasons, left and right assume the natives can and should make do with less. People will risk their lives not only to escape barrel bombs.

The reason why Western European societies are such a lure for the world’s poor is because they offer better prospects of both safety and riches. They offer this because they are better governed. The operative word here is ‘better’. They are not perfect by any means but they are better. Although many contemporary pundits on both left and right can find nothing good to say about western democracies, the world’s poor disagree. It is patronizing to assume that the only reason they think so is that they have been brainwashed by western media propaganda. By far the greater lure is from friends and relatives who have already made the trip and seen and tasted it for themselves (such as Mexicans in the United States). As George Bernard Shaw once said, the lack of money is the root of all evil. The poor already knew that.

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