The case for being inclusive

Simply clarifying what the disagreement about ‘migrants’ is actually about can help the international community work constructively together to address the challenges and opportunities of human mobility.  But also takes a normative stance. Here are the reasons why we should protect the United Nations’ inclusivist definition of migrants.


1. Securing access to protection

An inclusivist position recognizes that every migrant might be a person who qualifies for international protection as a refugee. By contrast, the residualist stance makes ‘migrant’ a potentially deadly label. It implies that anyone who is labelled ‘migrant’ does not need or qualify for international protection under the 1951 Refugee Convention. This is a dangerous position, since migration management should always ensure that those who might be entitled to protection as refugees can access it — even if they are few, or their situation is unforeseen. The best way to secure access to protection is to raise awareness that every migrant is potentially a refugee. This means embracing the inclusivist definition of migrants.

2. Preventing discrimination

People often cross borders in mixed groups of individuals with and without a probable claim to refugee status. The UNHCR recommends that such groups of people be referred to as ‘refugees and migrants’. This phrase is widely used, but we increasingly see people being referred to as either refugees or migrants on the basis of skin colour or nationality. For instance, West Africans crossing the Mediterranean are typically called ‘migrants’ because a relatively small percentage are granted refugee status after seeking asylum in Europe. This label would be unproblematic with an inclusivist view, which regards every migrant as a potential refugee. But with a residualist view, calling Syrians ‘refugees’ and Nigerians ‘migrants’ is a discriminatory disregard for the rights of each individual migrant. It is neither practical nor realistic to request every group of people on the move to be called ‘refugees and migrants’. Preserving the inclusivist definition solves the problem.

3. Putting people first

The dispute about the meaning of migrants is partly driven by politics and organizational turf battles. Let’s instead put people first! Everyone who has changed their usual place of residence is a migrant. Beyond that, migrants differ in terms of their experiences, resources, vulnerabilities, and rights.  Every person is unique, and every person’s individual rights must be respected. Refugees are one important group of migrants who have specific rights; the same is true for children and for trafficking victims.

4. Recognizing blurred lines

The residualist view would have been more feasible if it were crystal-clear who is a refugee and who is not. In reality, the boundaries are blurred. Saying so is not an attempt to undercut protection obligations; it has been pointed out by several generations of refugee scholars who have a passionate vocation and commitment to the well-being of vulnerable people on the move. It is true that States and politicians exploit the blurred boundaries to question people’s protection needs, sometimes in indefensible ways. But the best counter-strategy might not be to insist on a fiction of a black-and-white reality. Drawing the line between refugees and other migrants will remain an important and challenging task. Because it is not straight-forward, it is useful to also have a word—migrants—that applies to people on both sides of the line.

5. Preserving the meaning of ‘migration’

The view that ‘refugees are not migrants’ implies that refugees do not migrate, but engage in ‘refugee movements’. In other words, this view undermines the meaning of migration as a global phenomenon and policy field that also includes refugees. Such an outcome is detrimental to our efforts to address the challenges and opportunities of human mobility. Consider the following prominent issues on the migration policy agenda:

  • Migrant integration
  • Migrant smuggling
  • Migration and development

These issues, and many others, are just as relevant to refugees as to other migrants. If refugees are removed from the migration agenda, they stand to lose. We should, for instance, keep referring to ‘the migration–development nexus’ with the understanding that migration includes the mobility of refugees, and that refugees can be important development actors.

What about the counter-argument?

The primary argument against an inclusivist definition is that it takes attention away from the specific legal protections refugees require. But proponents of an inclusivist definition of migrants are not arguing for the removal of ‘refugees’ as an important and legally distinct category, even if they are a sub-category of ‘migrants’.

Read on to discover how the residualist view has become so influential.