Refugees and Migrants: How legal terms have shaped our perception of those asking for shelter
Updated: Dec 29, 2022
Migration has led society to be what it is today, constantly shaping the face of nations. Whether it be the Angles, Saxons and Jutes coming to Britain in the 450s AD or the repopulation of northern Europe after an ice age around 17,000 years ago, migration has been a fundamental way of human life since the beginning. Due to changing circumstances, whether it be environmental factors, the search for better economic prospects or the hunt for a safer life, humans have uprooted themselves. However, in the last century, migration has been categorised in an attempt to control it. The terms used to sort the types of migration have been more damaging than one could imagine. It has created stereotypes and shaped society's perception on the necessity of the needs of people. Thus, we have neglected and deemed ‘unworthy’ many people's cries for help.
To begin to understand the magnitude of this crisis, the labels placed on people searching for another life must be understood. There are, in short, three categories: Migrant, asylum seeker and refugee. There is no internationally accepted legal definition of a migrant, however, it is generally accepted that migrants are those staying outside their country of origin and are not asylum seekers or refugees.
Alternatively, an asylum seeker is one who is seeking international protection, but whose claim has not been fully decided on by the nation they have submitted it to. Although not every asylum seeker becomes a refugee, every refugee begins as an asylum seeker. In the UK, claims for asylum (to gain refugee status) are only considered for people already in the UK. However, no provision is made for anyone to travel to the UK to make such a claim. As seeking asylum is a human right, everyone should be allowed to enter another country to seek asylum.
Finally, a refugee is a person who has fled their own country as they are at risk of serious human rights violations and persecution there. Their risk to safety and life is so great they are forced to leave and seek safety elsewhere as their own government cannot or will not protect them from these dangers. Those with refugee status have the right to international protection meaning that nations cannot reject them.
Through the practical categorisation of a person's desire to move to a new country, stereotypes have arisen. The stories presented by the media of large amounts of migrants arriving on our coast and the validity and necessity of these people's safety are misconstrued. These people arriving through illegal and dangerous routes are put into a category of those who are not in any danger in their previous home, and thus do not deserve the help or shelter of the UK. This view completely ignores the fact that many of these migrants are coming to the UK to claim asylum (as they must first be in the UK to do so), and then may become refugees. It is also important to consider that for those to secure a long-term home in the UK one must have refugee status, or a visa/indefinite leave to remain. As entering the UK is lengthy and has restrictive criteria for applicants to meet, many searching for safety may be pushed into dangerous and illegal channels. On top of that, the only other option is being a refugee, which also has tight criteria one has to meet, therefore only giving the right to international safety for those in the most critical circumstances. This leaves the vast majority of internationally displaced people, left outside countries' borders with no one to protect them from any abuses. It is estimated by the UNHCR that global forced displacement has reached 103 million in mid-2022, with only 21.3 million gaining refugee status. In short, the term refugees only properly covers those who are refugees of war, neglecting all the others whose lives are at risk from other factors. This could be the risk of starving to death through drought or poverty, the risk of losing one's livelihood to floods and thus failing to support one's family. All these are genuine causes of the fear for one's life but have failed to be recognised by legal systems across the world and the current definition of a refugee.
So there lies the issue. Our use of terms is set in such rigidity that we have failed to recognise desperate and genuine pleas for help due to legislation drawn up in the 1957 refugee convention almost 70 years ago. The world has changed greatly since then. We face new threats to our safety and health. Therefore, the laws by which we deem those worthy of asylum must be changed. A structural revolution of the migration system must occur for help to reach those who truly need it. Failure to do so leaves many stranded outside our borders, left to fend for themselves. A cultural revolution is also essential. We must view those arriving on our shores with fresh eyes. Our current use of terms criminalises people seeking safety. They are not our enemy, arriving to plunder our nation and leave. They are simply searching for what is a fundamental right of humankind; To live safely, happily and freely. How can we deny people this? How can we criminalise and demonise children and parents and friends who ask us for these simple things? We must therefore change our legal terms and social perceptions.