Today, the concept of "the refugee" as distinct from other migrants looms large. Immigration laws have developed to reinforce a conceptual dichotomy between those viewed as voluntary, often economically motivated, migrants who can be legitimately excluded by potential host states, and those viewed as forced, often politically motivated, refugees who should be let in. The migrant/refugee binary is not just an innocuous shorthand. Its power stems from the way in which it is painted as objective, neutral, and apolitical.In truth, the binary is a dangerous legal fiction, politically constructed with the ultimate goal ofmaking harsh border control measures more ethically palatable to the public. It rests on three core assumptions which are not supported by empirical research: that refugees are a distinct and distinguishable group, that refugees are the neediest and most vulnerable border crossers, and that refugees are rare.
This chapter explains how the refugee concept is deeply linked to questions of sovereignty and territoriality, neither of which was an organizing principle of the world until the modern period. The chapter tells the story of how the legal construction of sovereignty developed alongside and intertwined with the colonial project. The resulting hierarchies of sovereignty led some forms of displacement to be cast as examples of refugees in exile, and some forms of displacement to be cast as byproducts of legitimate colonial expansion. The chapter then traces these global power dynamics into the twentieth century, as the refugee was codified into international law through processes that privileged the interests of powerful states and routinely discounted the sovereignty of states in the Global South. These tales of colonial exploitation are the foundation upon which the binary rests.
This chapter traces the role of the migrant/refugee binary in shaping, constraining, and ultimately bifurcating the academic study of migration. Especially since the birth of the field of refugee studies in the 1980s, scholars have tended to consider refugee movements separately from other forms of migration. This isolation is mutually reinforced; standard theories of migration tend to be heavily focused on economic push and pull factors, and on the migration policies of Global North states. A direct result of the isolation of refugee studies (later called forced migration studies) from the rest of migration studies is that generalist migration scholars tend to be more thoroughly integrated into their academic disciplines (usually sociology, political science, or history). This lack of connection between the study of refugees and the social sciences results in real intellectual losses for the fields in question.
This chapter analyzes the historical and current role that UNHCR plays in the perpetuation of the migrant/refugee binary, revealing the binary to be a central part of UNHCR's public relations and communications strategy. The chapter discusses the essentialist and positivist conception of a refugee that the agency promotes, and how that view fits with the inherent incentive for self-preservation that goes along with maintaining a specific institutional mandate. The chapter draws on a close study of the UNHCR's public relations work over the past decade, including interviews with communications and social media staff at the agency, and an analysis of press releases and social media efforts to promote and protect the migrant/refugee binary. UNHCR is deeply invested in the binary in part because it helps the agency to reassure Global North publics that sympathy toward refugees is not equivalent to open borders.
This chapter examines the life of the migrant/refugee binary in the Global South. First, the chapter provides an account of the reluctance and resistance on the part of many Global South states to the wording of the 1951 Convention definition, to adopting the Convention after its ratification, and to the 1967 Protocol that supposedly made the definition global. The chapter also chronicles the creation of two regional refugee definitions that are more expansive than the 1951 Convention definition. Finally, the chapter presents two brief case studies examining how the binary functions in the two largest contemporary displacement crises: Jordan and Lebanon (receiving Syrians) and Colombia and Peru (receiving Venezuelans). These accounts of South–South border crossing help to illustrate the ways in which the migrant/refugee binary is a construct driven by the interests of wealthy Global North states.
This chapter analyzes European reactions to arrivals at Europe's southern and eastern borders since 2014. Recent mass arrivals into Europe have triggered an unprecedented public interest in the terminology of migration, while simultaneously helping to reveal that the categories are irrevocably blurred. During the summer of 2015, every major media outlet ended up taking a stand on terminology, and heated debates ensued, sparking an ongoing conversation. Inspired by this public discourse about the categorization of border crossers, the analysis is particularly focused on the choice to refer to people as refugees or migrants, and the moments in which speakers or media outlets choose to defend or explain such choices. I conclude with the suggestion that debates about terminology are fundamentally linked to larger anxieties about both the past and future of Europe.
This chapter examines reactions in the United States to Central American arrivals at the US/Mexico border since 2014, placing these debates in an historical context that shows continuing US reluctance toward acknowledging itself as a destination for people seeking asylum. The chapter focuses on the moments in which public figures or media outlets refer to people as refugees or migrants, and how they defend or explain such choices. This time frame is particularly interesting in the case of the United States because it allows for a comparison across two presidential administrations, Obama's and Trump's. By examining the endurance of the migrant/refugee binary across administrations that have vastly different reputations on immigration and humanitarianism, I conclude that binary logic does not prevent refugees from being cast as a tiny fraction of the people advocates want to protect.
This chapter concludes that the migrant/refugee binary is not a useful frame for thinking about border crossing in a world that seems to have abandoned the notion of protecting vulnerable border crossers. The hypocrisy of the so-called "global" refugee protection regime is more apparent than ever, as wealthy states spend money that could be used to help people to instead keep them as far away as possible. Advocates run into trouble when the tropes used to defend refugees automatically make nonrefugees harder to defend, because the arguments focus on the special needs of refugees. Thus, the book concludes that assessment of humanitarian need combined with an honest accounting of Global North responsibility for displacement is a preferable alternative for advocates, and that scholarship on border crossing would be radically enriched if it moved beyond the binary paradigm.