The residualist push

The residualist view – that migrants as a leftover category of ‘not refugees’ – has gained prominence in recent years. How could that happen, despite all the counter-arguments and the UN’s established, inclusive definition of migrants? Here are some of the explanations.


1. The UN Refugee Agency promotes a residualist definition of migrants

The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) is the main proponent of a residualist definition of migrants as ‘not refugees’. The agency is ‘dedicated to saving lives, protecting rights and building a better future for refugees, forcibly displaced communities and stateless people’. The UNHCR’s position on the meaning of migrants might be explained under three points:

First, many refugee advocates (within the UNHCR and elsewhere) believe that their cause is best served by seeing refugees as fundamentally different from other people on the move. Approaching refugees as a sub-category of migrants, they fear, could undermine the special rights of refugees. The UNHCR always refers to ‘refugees’ and ‘migrants’ separately, according to their web site, ‘to maintain clarity about the causes and character of refugee movements and not to lose sight of the specific obligations owed to refugees under international law’.

The motivations behind this line of reasoning are widely shared. The disagreement is mainly a question of strategy: does it help or hinder refugee protection if ‘migrants’ is taken to exclude people who qualify for refugee status? Opinions differ.

Second, since the UNHCR’s mandate is focused on refugees, any problems that a residualist position causes for migration policy more broadly is not the UNHCR’s problem. The UNHCR specifically ‘does not consider itself to be a migration organization’ and is not geared towards more general policy areas such as migration management, migration and development, migrant smugling, or migrant integration. In other words, it is primarily other agencies within the UN system that have to grapple with the consequences of a residualist definition.

Third, a residualist definition of migrants has appeal to UNHCR because it clarifies the division of labour between agencies. In particular, it creates a clear boundary between the turfs of the UN Migration Agency (UNHCR) and the UN Migration Agency (IOM). A residualist definition of migrants implies that the UNHCR enjoys exclusive responsibility for refugees, while the IOM is only concerned with other migrants. This has apparently been an important motivation for UNHCR’s continued insistence that ‘migrants’ do not include refugees.

The UNHCR makes a difference for the lives of refugees worldwide and carries out work for which the agency merits respect and admiration. At the same time, organizational dynamics help understand the battle over definitions.


2. The campaign for a residualist view is fiercely effective?

The UNHCR’s campaign for a residualist view of migration is a successful example of strategic political communication. The campaign follows the logic of not engaging your opponent on neutrally defined terms and instead discrediting your opponent’s position by means of how the conflict is framed. The ‘Words choice matters’ campaign entailed a specific construction of ‘us’ (residualists) versus ‘them’ (inclusivists):

  • We know that words matter; they use words carelessly
  • We pay attention to correct usage; they are uninformed
  • We distinguish ‘migrants’ from ‘refugees’; they use the terms interchangeably

The truth is, however, that individuals and organizations who favour an inclusivist view—for instance the UN Migration Agency (IOM), the UN Human Rights agency (OHCHR), and leading scholars in the field—certainly agree that words matter, that we must pay attention to correct usage, and that ‘migrants’ from ‘refugees’ are distinct terms. The difference is not, as the campaign suggests, about respect for the importance of words, but rather about the meaning of those words.


3. The word ‘migrant’ has been tainted by abuse

The residualist view has gained traction because the use of ‘migrant’ has sometimes had discomforting political connotations. People who are critical towards hosting refugees can find it convenient to refer to them as ‘migrants’ in an effort to cast doubt upon their protection needs. Such politically motivated abuse of the term has created a backlash against the word ‘migrant.’

In the summer of 2015, Al Jazeera announced that the network would no longer refer to ‘migrants’ in the Mediterranean. This word, an online editor argued, has become ‘a tool that dehumanises and distances, a blunt pejorative.’

The UNHCR has commissioned an extensive study on European press coverage of the migration and refugee crisis. The study found that, especially in the United Kingdom, terminology varied with the political orientation of newspapers. However, this pattern was primarily linked to the use of ‘illegal’ and ‘immigrant’, not to the word ‘migrants’.

Most uses of the word ‘migrant’ involve no malicious intent or xenophobic politics. The UN Migration Agency (IOM) is among the organizations that work hard to preserve the dignity of the word, through the iamamigrant campaign.


3. The phrase ‘refugees and migrants’ has gained popularity

Many people have understood that the use of ‘refugees’ and ‘migrants’ is contentious and find it hard to know which word to use in specific circumstances. The phrase ‘refugees and migrants’ then feels reassuring because using both terms simes to be a way play it safe. But ‘refugees and migrants’ is not a neutral term; it is one that supports the residualist view that ‘refuges are not migrants’. The more we use ‘refugees and migrants’, the more we reinforce the view that ‘migrant’ is a residual and not an inclusive term.

The United Nations traditionally takes an inclusive view on who is a migrant, but the organization’s major contemporary response to migration issues was launched under the heading ‘large movements of refugees and migrants’, avoiding the word ‘migration’ and, in practice, treating migrants as a residual category of ‘non-refugees’. The slippage in the UN’s official, inclusive, definition is hastened by the use of the hashtag #UN4RefugeesMigrants, the web address refugeesmigrants.un.org/ and other portrayals of ‘refugees’ and ‘migrants’ as two separate groups.


Read on to discover how you can influence how the meaning of ‘migrants’ is understood.