Of Refugees and Migrants: Stigma, Politics, and Boundary Work at the Borders of Europe

By Raia Apostolova (Central European University)

It is not exaggerated to say that “refugee” has become, over the past two weeks, a safe and consensual substitute for the discredited notion of ‘migrant’ in public discourse. As Bono, the voice of mainstream, Western good conscience put it : “We should not use the word migrant. Migrant is a political word that used to take away the real status of these people. They are refugees.”

In this post I reflect on how we got there in such a short period of time, and offer some longer-term background on the institutional and cultural history of the migrant-refugee dichotomy. At stake is a more effective critical-cultural analysis of the choices we make in talking about social issues.

Understanding Al Jazeera’s Choice: a Situational Analysis

On August 20th, Al Jazeera published an editorial entitled “Why Al Jazeera will not say Mediterranean ‘migrants’.The author, Barry Malone, explained that ‘migrant’ is a pejorative umbrella term that obfuscates the horror of Syrians’ experience as well as Europe’s humanitarian duty in their regard. By using the term ‘migrant’ we “give weight to those [governments] who want only [emphasis is mine] to see economic migrants.” Al Jazeera performed a symbolic displacement, framing migrant subjects as victims, in an attempt to elicit more compassion from its audience and peers.

The performance was undoubtedly a success. Al Jazeera’s profession of faith resounded like a call, and the call reverberated quickly throughout major media outlets such as The Washington Post and The Guardian. The latter questioned the legitimacy of narratives about “economic migrants,” proposing instead to tell a story about “refugees,” “asylum-seekers” and “displaced people”—in other words: “a story about humanity.” “Economic migrants, unlike refugees, do not necessarily suffer persecution,” confirmed The Huffington Post.

The impact of Al Jazeera’s call registered quickly on social media as well. Users started calling on and disciplining each other, as illustrated in the following screen shot:

Raia twitter

The choice of ‘refugees’ over ‘migrants’ was strategic and makes sense in light of Al Jazeera’s liberal inclinations. The intention was to stress the desperate plea of the populations that, today, attempt the crossing into Europe—at the risk of their lives, of their children’s lives, and of their sanity in the harrowing circumstances of overloaded boats, overcrowded camps and other inhospitable and ill-equipped stations in Budapest and elsewhere. The point was to stress in particular the legitimacy and rights of Syrians escaping a country devastated by a war, in which moreover the West is not without responsibility. Al Jazeera’s symbolic move made all the more sense that the last global wave of far right movements, on the tail of austerity policies and of the 2008 economic crisis, further discredited migrants’ already fragile social identity in receiving countries. In this ideological context, refugees seem more deserving of attention from “us” because their situation is more desperate. They are construed as victims, when ordinary migrants are not.

The positive effects of this large movement to reframe the current migrant wave cannot be downplayed. The unprecedented show of public sympathy toward Syrians in Germany, Austria, and other Western countries this past week might be partly credited to this very shift in language. We realize already how short lived this movement has been, however, only a few days after media outlets started gushing about Germany’s generosity. Austria and Germany have closed their borders again, it seems now durably. Hungary and other countries in the region have walled and militarized theirs. Besides, we’ve been seeing for months how the notion of refugee can be instrumentalized by the like of Viktor Orbán, Nicolas Sarkozy, and other conservative politicians, as a way of stigmatizing entire groups whether of migrants, Muslims, or non-nationals.

Beyond Situation and Strategy: a Structure of Meaning and Action

A few voices have recently questioned the general Al Jazeera-driven consensus. (See also here.) These voices attempt to redirect critical attention toward the repressive structure embodied by, and enacted through the refugee-migrant antinomy. They rightly suggest that this split structure of meaning generates more discrimination, pitting victim against victim, and ultimately serving the function of maintaining global inequalities and the borders of wealthy states. Such insights are important, but they need to be put in historical and cultural perspective to become truly meaningful.

The current debate over migrants and refugees is directly derived from the meaning that international law gives to these terms. According to the UN, the notion of migrant applies to “all cases where the decision to migrate is taken freely by the individual concerned, for reasons of ‘personal convenience’ and without intervention of an external compelling factor.” The bifurcation between “voluntary” and “involuntary” migration in this definition is striking. As a legal notion, the solid boundary it erects between two types of subjects is both symbolic and material. It distinguishes “economic migrants” from “political” ones. It is along this original line that all binary categories of migrants are invented, hierarchized, and disputed in political discourse today—the “good” vs. the “bad” migrant, the legal vs. “illegals”, the Gastarbeiter vs. the “asylum seeker”, the “refugee” vs. the “migrant”, the “refugee” vs. the “invader”, the “refugee” vs. the “terrorist”.

The dichotomy between economic (voluntary) migrant and political (involuntary) refugee was introduced in international law after World War II, when political migration was differentiated from “labor flows.”[1] Both were formerly lumped under the single category of “international migration” and overseen by the International Labor Organization (ILO). In 1945, the United Nations was created and took over the function of regulating movement perceived to have a political rather than an economic origin. The new division of labor between international organizations was part of the institutional decoupling between political and economic activities described by Pahuja in her book Decolonizing International Law: Development, Economic Growth and the Politics of Universality[2]

Born out of macro-historical institutional dynamics, the dichotomy opposing refugees to migrants is a social construct in the traditional sense of a contingent reality. At the same time it is rooted in a deep (i.e. ancient, and objectively inscribed in institutional setups) structure of meaning through which migration processes are framed and acted upon in the international political field. This structure is binary and strictly differentiates political from economic migrants, while construing the former as victims of force, and the latter as free agents driven by the search for economic gain. When we advocate for one of the terms of this polarity, we might think we are being critical, but we only play with the tools of a cultural kit inherited from history. Al Jazeera’s dissenting strategy is only critical in appearance. In fact it implicitly (and unconsciously) reinforces an order of things that it doesn’t control or even starts to address.


the Perspective of Radical Social Movements and Critical Scholarship

The strategy adopted by Al Jazeera and many others does not only play into, and thereby reinforce, a constructed repertoire mobilized most of the time for discriminatory purposes. It also undoes years of symbolic labor by political activists and critical academics who, actually, implement the term “migrant” as part of a larger political strategy.[3]

This movement, made of grassroots organizations and politically committed academics, employs the homogeneous notion of “migrant” so as to suggest that migrants are not differentiated and discriminated according to projected motivations and causes. This alternative sense deliberately blurs the boundary between “economic migrants” and “refugees,” between “legals” and “illegals,” in an attempt to bring this boundary to consciousness and to de-naturalize it. The aim is to inscribe in the term and in its use a critique of the institution that distinguishes, divides and discriminates.

The purpose is also, doing so, to restitute to migration its double meaning, both political and economic. Not only are refugees almost always victims of failing economies within a globally unequal system, but “economic migration” itself, as an outcome of the workings of global capitalism, is an inherently political problem and has to be recognized as such. In this critical version the term ‘migrant’ retains its function as a signifier of social class—a dimension which the individualistic frame latent in the fiction of the voluntary “economic migrant” erases.

A few words to conclude

The linguistic and symbolic distinction between ‘refugees’ and ‘migrants’ followed from the institutional rift that formally separated economic from political affairs under capitalism. Theorists such as Karl Polanyi, Pierre Bourdieu, or Ellen Wood (among many others) have shown that such rift is contingent, and that it comes with heavy ideological baggage. This is why discourses on migration are rife with power struggles fought through language, the stakes of which are material and symbolic resources. Good intentions need to be kept in check if we want to avoid mistaken conclusions—such as the belief that calling a migrant a refugee today will help them tomorrow, for example.

As scholars, as public academics, as intellectuals, it is easy to fall victim to a type of categorical fetishism that blinds us to the temporal dimension of our discursive strategies. Some of these strategies are effective in the present but might compromise the future. We need to overcome such fetishism by exposing the concrete realities such categories represent and entail.

Raia Apostolova is a PhD candidate at the Central European University in Budapest and part of the New Left Perspectives collective in Sofia, Bulgaria. Her dissertation (“Methodological liberalism and the interaction of migratory categories in late capitalism”) is based on a nine month ethnographic, documentary, and historical research in Germany and Bulgaria. The thesis looks at the ideological, political, and practical sources of the political/economic divide among migrants, and its effects on today’s European politics.

End notes:

[1] Karatani, Rieko. “How history separated refugee and migrant regimes: in search of their institutional origins.” International journal of refugee law 17.3 (2005): 517-541.

[2] Pahuja, Sundhya. Decolonising international law: development, economic growth and the politics of universality. Cambridge University Press, 2011.

[3] See for example De Genova, Nicolas. “Migrant” illegality” and deportability in everyday life.” Annual review of anthropology (2002): 419-447and Mezzadra, Sandro, and Brett Neilson. Border as Method, or, the Multiplication of Labor. Duke University Press, 2013.


3 thoughts on “Of Refugees and Migrants: Stigma, Politics, and Boundary Work at the Borders of Europe

  1. Well written, though it would be nice to know what exactly is meant by “social class” in the text. The author appears to use it in the classical sense, i.e. as one’s position in the (global) relations of production. Yet, having mentioned Bourdieu, we ought to stress that class is much more and involves a whole gamut of social, cultural and economic markers of distinction. Clearly, these markers are very unevenly distributed among migrants themselves, and are also being exploited by migrant discourses in Europe. Germany has not just welcomed “refugees”, but educated, middle class (preferably secular looking) migrants who are, politically, ethically and aesthetically much easier to “sell” to the electorate. Even the Guardian has praised German “cleverness” for allowing the Syrian middle class to contribute to German economic efficiency. Once again, one wonders where does that leave working class (or peasant) migrants. But we should also look for the extent to which migrants are themselves complicit in resorting to class privileges on their journeys. My point is that using the term migrants to refer to a “social class”, does not necessarily reflect an existing social formation, let alone one that is self-conscious of its group interests. In other words, we should be careful not fall victim to one categorical fetishism whilst escaping another.


  2. fetishism? Must everything be sexual? You wrote: “… As scholars, as public academics, as intellectuals, it is easy to fall victim to a type of categorical fetishism that blinds us to the temporal dimension of our discursive strategies. Some of these strategies are effective in the present but might compromise the future. We need to overcome such fetishism by exposing the concrete realities such categories represent and entail. …”


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