A refugee is not a legal term. It is an informal term, defined differently at different times by different people, which at base means: someone who is seeking refuge. A migrant is a person who moves. Most people move because they believe the place they would like to go to will give them better opportunities than where they are. The differences between a migrant and a refugee are informal, not legal terms, and not defined by any international standards. They are generally understood as simply degrees of severity in understanding the reasons why people move, which are basically around the same needs of opportunity, safety, and security.
A refugee is someone who is traveling away from where they live because where they live is or feels unsafe. A place only “is” unsafe when the violence a person experiences becomes so pronounced that it either injures them or takes their life, but most people don’t want to wait long enough to find out. So they usually decide to leave their home on the basis of “feeling” unsafe. A migrant might not feel as unsafe as a person who is considered a refugee, and yet their reasons for moving and their reasons for wanting to live in a new place could stem from basically the same concerns and problems and from the hope that a new place will be better.
A refugee could be YOU. A migrant could be YOU. You might feel unsafe and want to leave where you live. If YOU want to leave where you live, YOU want to have the freedom to do so. You want to have the financial means to do so. If you do have the financial means to do so, you want your government to give you the permission to leave and another government the permission to arrive.
Why would a person feel unsafe where they live? Why would you feel unsafe where you live?
It might feel unsafe because of DIRECT VIOLENCE. Direct violence could be violence in the streets by fellow citizens—people you know have been mugged on a daily basis. There is gang violence and you fear for the safety of your children. You do not want your children to go to school where they are meant to go to school because you have heard that many kids are being bullied. You fear for your safety when you walk around after dark. You have received threats of violence from someone you know who lives in your community. It might be that there are people being shot by the police on a regular basis or harassed and jailed for what appears to be unjust reasons. It might be that people are being beaten or killed for being gay or deemed “different” or differently gendered or different religion. You might have heard that people who are protesting or organizing for their employment rights have been beaten or killed. It might be that you have been actively protesting and are experiencing violence or threat of violence while organizing. It might be that the job you do makes some people angry and you have received threats of violence. These are all reasons for feeling unsafe and these are all reasons to want to leave.
Direct violence could also be violence from your government’s military—bombs, guns, the presence of tanks, either directly against you—its own citizens—or indirectly while fighting against an internal or international military or organization, damaging the homes and livelihood of its own citizens. The direct war could be putting pressure on citizens within a country to join one side or the other. You might feel unsafe and unwilling to fight for your government because you don’t agree with their position, but you also don’t agree with the violent resistance within your country. You feel pressure from both sides to take one side or the other, and you feel unsafe if you don’t join either side. You fear that your government wont offer you protection or continue to offer you security if you don’t join their side.
Direct violence could be the violence from an external military force or organization who is using bombs, guns, drones, or the constant presence of military force to exert pressure, power, and fear upon your government, and indirectly upon civilians like you. You may feel pressure to take sides or that you must fight for your government’s military. These are all reasons to leave, either because you fear for your life or because you fear that you cannot live and work the way that you want to under those conditions.
You might feel unsafe and want to leave the place that you live because of INDIRECT VIOLENCE: the violence of poverty which is related to things like lack of food, lack of infrastructure, lack of health care, lack of education, lack of general employment possibility, and/or poor environmental conditions that give rise to all of these things.
Suppose a hurricane just struck and all the homes in your area are destroyed. Maybe your home is not destroyed, but the homes and businesses around you are so destroyed that its difficult to live the life you once knew and it does not seem so easy to start over where you are. You might lack the support from your local or national government to start over. You might want to leave where you are living because over time the climate has grown so hot that the camels you own have died, you can no longer raise your livestock, or grow the crops that your family has grown for generations, or that you have spent your whole life learning to grow. Now there is no longer a market for what you grow, or you cannot grow enough to be competitive in the market. These are all reasons to want to leave where you live.
You might be seeking refuge because the job that you are trained to do is not available anymore in the area where you live, or the jobs that are available to you are so uninteresting, so devalued and so physically or emotionally strenuous that you would rather seek other employment in other places. You might be seeking education for a job that you would like to do but cannot get educated in the way that you want to in the place where you live. This lack of resources and lack of possibility makes you feel ultimately unsafe and insecure.
You might want to leave the place where you live because the company that employed you and most of the people that you know had to leave your town. You want to continue working in the type of job that you had and if you stay you might be forced into a labor that you never wanted to do nor do you want to do in the future. The idea of working another kind of job makes you depressed, maybe even suicidal. You feel as though your entire future and your happiness are insecure. This is a reason for wanting to leave where you live.
There are many reasons that you might seek “refuge”. There are many reasons why people want to move. There are many reasons that you might fear direct or indirect violence in the place that you live. There are many reasons why people you know might feel direct or or indirect violence in the place that they live.
A refugee could be YOU. A migrant could be YOU. You might feel unsafe and want to leave where you live. You might feel discontent and that opportunities are better somewhere else. The discontent might feel so strong that you feel an ultimate sense of insecurity related to the place in which you live. You might want to come to the aid of someone else you know who feels unsafe. You might want to move to live near to them, to assist them.
If YOU want to leave where you live, YOU want to have the freedom to do so. You want to have the financial means to do so or the ability to leave so that you can gain the financial means to sustain yourself. If you do have the financial means to leave, you want your government—local or national—to give you the permission to leave and another government—local or national—the permission to arrive. At the bare minimum, you want the CHANCE to look for work, to ATTEMPT to start a new life, to TRY to find education, to have the PERMISSION to find a new place to school your kids, to have the AUTONOMY to find friends and support networks for yourself.
Some of us never have to consider how difficult it is to leave the place that we live and come to a new place. Some of us have the privilege to be able to travel as much as 4000 kilometers away and still live within the political sovereignty of the country to which we have citizenship and the right to work. Some of us are happy with the political conditions and rights of the country to which we were born. Some of us have enough money to buy power or permissions to live almost anyplace in the world, to visit places that we would like to consider living. We have the ability to at least travel to another town that might have better opportunities.
In the United States after Hurricane Katrina, there was a lot of talk about whether the people fleeing the hurricane to go to other states were refugees or not (http://blogs.chicagotribune.com/news_columnists_ezorn/2005/09/refugees_vs_eva.html). The fact is, without legal category, it really doesn’t matter what they are called—refugees, migrants, internally displaced persons, adventurers, travelers, victims. A legal category is only important insofar as it affects the “legality” of a persons’ right or lack of rights to be in or live in a place. The fact is, many of the persons who traveled from disaster areas to safer areas were received by other cities and other states. The fact is, for those that had the financial means or familial connections available to them and wanted to leave, had, at the very least, the legal permission to do so because they were citizens of the United States.
Consider that the distance from New York to San Francisco is 4706 kilometers, and that at any time, if someone has the financial means, a citizen can travel between those two cities or any other in the United States without problem. If a US citizen were experiencing some difficulty or lack of opportunity in their city, they could travel easily between cities looking for a new job or new opportunity.
Consider that Aleppo, Syria and Berlin, Germany are two cities 3389 kilometers apart. The long “road” between those two places is traversed by many Syrian migrants who believe that Germany might accept them legally “if they can get there.” But in order to do to, they have to cross through many other countries where they will not be received and might be harassed, beaten, killed, or have their possessions stolen from them. They must travel through illegal means because no country nor corporation, not even their idealized destination Germany, is offering them a safe and legal means to travel (even if they had money for the plane ticket). The average Syrian cannot simply board a plane for Germany and land and expect to come into the country the way that most people traveling on a tourist visa can, or the way that a person flying from New York to San Francisco can.
A refugee could be YOU, a migrant could be YOU. If you wanted to travel 4000 kilometers away, or even 1000 kilometers away, you would want the permission to do so. You would want the freedom of movement that would allow you to find another place suitable for you and your goals. If at every few hundred kilometers you were stopped, fingerprinted, placed in a camp, a prison, a center, an internment camp, a work camp, an orphanage, a homeless shelter, an institution—and told that because you wanted to move and for no other reason than simply the fact of wanting to move, that you must now be under constant watch of the state, your potential to self actualize and reach your goals would be severely challenged. If you were told that you could not legally work simply because you wanted to migrate, you would have a very hard time finding meaningful work. If you were told that your body had to be managed simply because you were unhappy, discontent, felt unsafe, insecure, or wanted other opportunities, that management could seriously limit your future.
There is simply no reason to manage the movement of bodies to the degree that States are currently managing the bodies of migrants, whether they are later deemed to be political asylees or not. If those bodies were your body you would not want to be managed.
It does not matter for what reason you are moving. You need the right to live outside of an institution, you need the right to self-actualize and to build the necessary structures of support as a person and as a community, and you need the right to look for work. You could be a refugee. You could be a migrant. Oppose the management of the bodies of migrants as you would oppose the management of your own body.