writing across society, culture, environment, politics, economy

Understanding economic refugees

International migration regimes classify and categorise migrants into types, depending on the reason for migration. The reality, however, is much less neat and distinct than the labels and classifications these regimes recognise and apply. What interests me most is the assumption that all forms of migration can be neatly divided into separate and distinct categories. The separation between ‘political’ and ‘economic’ reasons for migration is problematic as it assumes that the two spheres are mutually exclusive. This attempt to neatly categorise people into separate and distinct boxes has serious consequences for millions of people desperate to find a better life, but forced to survive in brutal realities with few rights or resources.

Here I explore the concept of economic refugees (based on a research paper I wrote a few years ago).

Economic refugees

The 1951 United Nations Refugee Convention defines a refugee as a person who has “a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion”. These grounds relate to political and social persecution, but do not cover economic persecution or oppression. Poverty or the lack of economic rights, are not grounds for seeking asylum.

The word ‘refugee’ usually evokes images of destitute people fleeing war, violence, political and social chaos. It is not generally associated with people who are trying to escape poverty, and searching for livelihoods and opportunities to improve their lives. Public discourse rarely engages in discussion or debate about the limiting conceptions and definitions of ‘refugee’, the dynamics and complexities of the global political economy, migration in its various forms, the harsh reality of living under oppressive economic conditions, and the points at which economics, politics, migration and human rights intersect. One of these points of intersection is the predicament of economic refugees.

The term ‘economic refugee’ has no official meaning in international human rights, migration or refugee discourses. It is often used pejoratively to denigrate people seeking asylum, implying that they manipulate and flout immigration rules. There is however, a much deeper connotation to ‘economic refugee’ than in its populist use. The implication is that there is a profound crisis in the ability to attain economic security and exercise socio-economic rights.

International human rights law makes specific reference to economic and social rights, such as the rights to a secure livelihood and to a decent standard of living, among others. In spite of these internationally recognised and accepted standards on individual rights and freedoms, many people throughout the world experience displacement, lose their livelihoods and become impoverished as a result of economic restructuring, global trade practices, development projects and environmental degradation. There is little or no recourse under the international human rights framework for people who have experienced these denials and violations of socio-economic rights. With few prospects within their own nations, people are often forced to migrate to nations where there are more economic opportunities in order to sustain a livelihood and support family members.

I am using the term ‘economic refugee’ to describe a person who, because of impoverishment, poverty, loss of livelihood, or forced displacement, is unable to attain or secure socio-economic rights. These conditions may be through implementation of economic development policies or economic restructuring, or through the neglect or incapacity of the state to meet these human rights obligations and provide economic security for their citizens. ‘Economic refugee’ is also used to describe a person fleeing economic oppression or persecution, where economic oppression or persecution involve the deliberate denial or suppression of socio-economic rights and exclusion from participation in economic activities through laws and policies, and social and political structures and institutions.

Globalisation, economic disparities and displacement

Economic globalisation

Economic globalisation has seen most national economies adopt the model of the market economy. Since the 1980s there have been concerted efforts by the wealthiest, and most politically and economically powerful states, as well as international agencies such as the World Bank and International Monetary Fund (IMF), to impose neo-liberal economic policies on most nations. Such policies are often tied to the receipt of financial and non-financial aid from donor governments and agencies. Economic globalisation or integration of national economies, as well as the liberalisation of global trade, has locked nations into economies organised around free-market ideologies and policies, which often emphasise reduced public service expenditure and promote privatisation, production for export and foreign investment. The imposition of neo-liberal economic policies on developing nations has tended to increase financial and social hardship for many of their citizens.

Economic oppression and poverty are constant companions to neo-liberal policies that dominate economic globalisation. For many formerly colonised nations that suffered enormous social, political and economic turmoil during and immediately after colonialism, political and economic instability continue decades after achieving independence. Systems of economic and social organisation of colonial regimes were often incorporated into newly formed states, and patterns and relationships of exploitation continued at the international level. It is very difficult for developing nations that lack political power and influence to break away from these exploitative patterns and relations.

The implementation of neo-liberal policies and programs can have the effect of further entrenching vulnerabilities for individuals and communities in already economically and socially precarious positions. Neo-liberal or free-market prescriptions include:

  • the shift to export-oriented production, resulting in essential goods produced mainly for export markets rather than domestic consumption;
  • entry of multinational corporations (MNCs) into developing countries and their networks of subcontractors;
  • structural adjustment policies (SAPs) imposed by donor nations and multilateral organisations as conditions for loans or aid; and,
  • a shift in the structure of power at the international level, where the power and influence of international institutions focused on markets – i.e. MNCs, IMF, World Bank, and World Trade Organisation (WTO) – is significantly greater compared to institutions with a focus on human rights and sustainable human development – i.e. non-government organisation (NGOs), United Nations (UN) agencies, and the International Labour Organisation (ILO).

SAPs imposed on governments often require them to open their economies to financial and trade flows from industrialised nations, and to undertake austerity measures that impact on the poor. Such measures include reducing public expenditure for social services and programs, resulting in a decrease in benefits for housing, health care, education, and food and fuel subsidies. These cuts to essential services and basic goods place added pressure on individuals, families and communities to make ends meet.

Policies that promote liberalised trading rules and more competitive and open markets often lead to the search for low labour costs. Much of this low-wage labour is found in developing country economies, where many MNCs set up bases. Although MNCs can provide a source of jobs, they also create a pool of low-skilled wage labour exposed to standards of Western consumption and represent a potential source of migration. These developments can mean that work conditions in the formal sector become more exploitative or that people are pushed into informal sectors of the economy. In the formal economic sectors, liberalisation of trade often sees cheaper imports enter the market, which can have the effect of squeezing out local businesses, leading to job losses.

For example, small farmers face multiple and interconnected challenges in a global economy. As world trading rules seek to remove trade barriers and protectionist trade policies from some economies while retaining those of other economies, developing country economies are forced to accept imports from developed countries. Governments of many developed countries support their agricultural sectors by subsidising production. This allows farmers from developed countries to sell their goods to developing countries at prices that are often cheaper than locally produced agricultural goods, which small farmers in developing countries must compete with. In addition, the degradation of agricultural land and environment puts pressure on farmers to increase productivity.1 Combined with poor physical and financial infrastructure can hinder access to non-local markets, and the encroaching of commercial agriculture, the common result is that farmers are driven from their lands and lose their livelihoods.

Economic displacement

Globalisation has had a wide range of economic and social impacts that forcibly displace populations and create economic refugees. Economic refugees may encompass various displaced populations, including those who have been displaced as a result of environmental destruction, the effects of climate change, and development projects. Other events or conditions that may produce economic refugees include famine, the global food crisis, and economic and social collapse following political crisis.

Environmentally displaced people can be seen as economic refugees where economic and development policies result in the degradation of arable land,2 or where export-oriented agricultural production leaves people without basic foods for domestic consumption.3 Environmental damage through economic activity can displace significant populations, as the natural environment may have become so degraded it can longer support local populations, forcing these communities to leave their land and homes.

It is widely acknowledged that economic and development policies geared towards industrialisation have resulted in global warming. The forced displacement of populations is among the effects of global warming, especially for low-lying islands and coastal regions. Changes in climactic and environmental conditions affect economic activities and prosperity in these regions, threatening the economic and social structures. The effects of climate change are predicted to result in mass population displacement in the near future.

Economic development policies, although having the aim of improving national wealth and living standards, often have the effect of displacing communities without adequate rehabilitation or compensation and thereby impoverishing them. Annually millions of people are displaced by development projects, including slum clearance, forestry, mining, and especially large-scale infrastructure projects such as the building of big dams. People are faced with the loss of home, land, livelihoods, communities, and access to natural resources. Compensation for these losses and resources for resettlement are insufficient for starting new lives. The effect is the loss of social, cultural and economic resources for whole communities, which can result in social marginalisation, impoverishment and few opportunities to improve living standards.

The forces of economic globalisation produce socio-economic conditions that are unsustainable and often result in displacement and forced migration. These set of conditions create economic refugees.

International migration and its control

Over the last few decades, international migration has been made easier through more accessible and cheaper travel, established migration networks and routes and migrant communities abroad, as well as advances in communications. According to the UN Population Division, in 2013, 232 million people (3.2 per cent of the world’s population) were international migrants, compared with 175 million in 2000 and 154 million in 1990.

This ease of movement for people across international borders has facilitated greater capacity for international migration. At the same time immigration policies and laws have become increasingly restrictive. National security and terrorism concerns have provided the rationale for much of the tightening of immigration and asylum laws, as well as border controls, which have only become even stricter since 11 September 2001. In spite of the resources and efforts dedicated to controlling borders and restricting immigration, states have not successfully prevented attempts by people to enter their territory illegally.4

Economic globalisation has widened the disparities in wealth within and between nations. It has also adversely affected socio-economic conditions in already poor or unstable economies and societies from which people are forced to leave. Changing demographics have increased demands for labour in industrialised nations, which have resulted in greater pressure to increase international labour migration. These developments have been met with fewer legal and official migration options available, resulting in the growth of unauthorised migration, which in turn has seen a growth of the networks and channels to facilitate unauthorised migration.

The use of people smugglers to facilitate border crossings is one means of circumventing restrictive immigration policies available to economic refugees. The risks involved in migrating through people smuggling are grave and there is a high probability of falling victim to a variety of human rights abuses or other tragic consequences. As a clandestine activity, people smuggling and the plight of smuggled migrants often only comes to public and political attention when events take a tragic turn.

Complexity of forced migration

Social, political and institutional structures and their implications for various social groups are crucial in explaining forced migration. Some of the factors that underlie forced migration include violations or denials of rights to livelihood, health care, education, and adequate housing and food. Discriminatory laws, policies and practices against particular social groups (including women, religious, ethnic and cultural minorities) may force members of these groups to migrate. People who migrate as a result of such denials and breaches of socio-economic rights are sometimes referred to as ‘survival migrants’, since migration becomes a strategy for survival.

Economic refugees are forced to migrate as a result of complex political, social and economic situations. The difficulty in distinguishing between the various motives for movement have forced international agencies including the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to recognise that conventional views and distinctions between political refugees and economic migrants may soon become obsolete, if not already.5

Economic deprivation is often related to political developments that produce economic crises or instability. Prolonged political oppression and crisis in Zimbabwe has been followed by economic disintegration, which has forced large numbers of people to leave the country in search of a living, many fleeing to neighbouring South Africa. Under the dictatorship in Burma, political oppression and economic collapse forced many Burmese to escape to Thailand in hope of work. In these circumstances of political and economic crises, many people may be classified as political refugees. Many more suffer more directly from the economic oppression that supports the political oppression. These complex, intertwined and mutually reinforcing developments combine to force people to move away using various channels.

Globalisation sometimes forces states to relinquish control over particular policy areas, such as trade. At other times, the effects of economic globalisation are met with resistance by states. Immigration is a site of state resistance, and its control allows states to exercise and proclaim their sovereignty in the face of globalisation. Subsequently, the undermining of national rules that control immigration are played out in the media and public discourse as attacks on the nation’s sovereignty and its national security.

The plight of economic refugees is treated with concern when there is tragedy or death, such as when people drown at sea or suffocate in transport containers as they are being smuggled across international borders. In the absence of death or disaster, economic refugees are usually portrayed as criminals and viewed with suspicion for subverting national border controls and laws. This leads to a trampling of rights and protections for people caught in such situations. The reasons people embark on such perilous journeys are rarely explored in detail or given much space or time in public and political debate. In this respect, economic refugees are invisible to the public consciousness and their needs go unnoticed by states and institutions.

Dichotomies in refugee and migration discourses

In refugee and migration discourses a clear distinction is made between political refugees and economic migrants. This distinction centres around two main dichotomies about the circumstances that initiate the movement – political or economic – and the nature of the migration – forced or voluntary.

Political/economic distinction

The spectrum of migration contains various classes of economic migrants and refugees, including elite highly skilled and educated professionals who are in demand because of their skills and expertise, temporary workers, and refugees fleeing war and human rights violations. Academic, public, political and policy debates and discussions about definition, classification and recognition are generally framed by the distinction made between political refugees and economic migrants. This accepted orthodoxy influences international migration and refugee regimes and their management.

There are many ways the term ‘economic refugee’ is used. It is often used interchangeably with ‘economic migrant’. For many politicians, commentators and scholars, economic refugees are perceived, written and spoken about as opportunistic migrants, attempting to claim rights that they are not entitled to. The term also has been used to describe highly skilled and educated professionals migrating through official channels, and those low-skilled or desperately poor, attempting to migrate officially and unofficially to earn money to send back to their families as remittances or to achieve a higher standard of living for themselves.

The wide and varied uses of ‘economic refugee’ and/or ‘economic migrant’ are partly the result of the lack of a formal definition and institutional recognition of economic refugees. The term has no official or legal status and therefore is used to make a distinction between ‘genuine’ political refugees, as defined under international refugee law, and people who may be seeking to migrate for economic self-interest rather than political persecution.

Forced/voluntary movement and choice

The pejorative use of ‘economic refugee’ and the distinction that is made between the ‘political’ and ‘economic’ often stems from the inherent understandings and cultural meanings assigned to refugees and migrants. Crucial to this distinction is the dichotomy of forced versus voluntary movement. A refugee is forced to move from their home and country because of the fear of political persecution which threatens their life and security, whereas a migrant, economic or otherwise, voluntarily migrates. This notion of voluntarism and the availability of ‘choice’ to migrate, assumes that a person is in no fear of persecution, or that there is no emergency or risk to life which makes it necessary to leave their home and country.

The inverse of this notion is the assumption that refugees who are in fear of persecution do not exercise choice or agency in their flight to seek asylum outside their own countries. However, some degree of control in choosing where to go also exists for refugees fleeing violence and persecution. The complexity of making the decision to seek asylum in another nation is not reflected in the simplistic dichotomy of ‘forced/choice’. It is a false dichotomy, as there is always agency and choice involved at every step and every point of the migration spectrum. There are multiple factors in all forms of migration, which make it difficult to categorise migration as purely forced or purely voluntary. What may differ for those within the migration spectrum is the type of channels and resources available to base choices, decisions and exercise individual agency.6

Immigration restriction policies require the defining of different categories of migrants within international law.7 It is this categorisation which subsequently determines the policies for the treatment individuals receive, with ‘voluntary’ migrants at one end of the spectrum and political refugees at the other end. Policies of protection or restriction are dependent on perceived victimisation and exercise of choice in movement.

Consequences and challenges – displaced peoples

The dichotomies discussed above have helped to conceptualise and create different categories of migrants. International instruments maintain these separate and apparently distinct groupings, which in turn establish hierarchies of worthiness for protection and recognition. Yet often, the motivations and compulsions that forcing people to migrate are a combination of factors, with the political, economic and social conditions that do not provide secure or hopeful futures.

In the decades since the adoption of the Refugee Convention, these conceptions, categories and instruments have proven inadequate in dealing with the protection needs and human rights of several groups who have experienced different kinds of displacement and forced migration. These groups, falling in the gaps of the international human rights protections, include internally displaced persons, people displaced by development projects, environmental and climate change refugees, and economic refugees.8 There is little or no recourse for people who have experienced these kinds of displacement under the international human rights framework.

There has been gathering momentum and support in recent years to provide refugee status to people displaced by climate change, potentially becoming the largest group of refugees. Closely linked to the issues of environmental degradation and climate change, as well as political upheaval and conflict, is economic instability and oppression. International rights protection frameworks do not recognise or adequately protect the rights and needs of people who are trying to escape economic insecurity or oppression. Falling in the gaps between the international refugee and migration regimes are economic refugees. The consequences of these gaps in international law and between protection regimes are serious and significant.

1.[Return] The pressure to increase productivity and output to compete with cheaper imports only worsens the situation, as farmers are forced to intensify unsustainable farming methods, hastening the degradation of land. Farmers become locked into a cycle where, in order to earn the same amount of money, increased output is required, which leads to further intensification of farming methods, which in turn leads to the land becoming ever more degraded and less able to produce the required output.

2.[Return] Degradation of agricultural land occurs from the extensive use of pesticides and chemical fertilisers, as well as over-cultivation and production which causes soil erosion and reduces the fertility of arable land. The biological diversity of agricultural land is affected by monocultures or single-crop farming. Export-oriented agricultural production emphasise large-scale agricultural production, which typically involve these intensive farming production methods.

3.[Return] Export-oriented policies tend to favour the production of ‘cash crops’ such as coffee beans, sugar, tea, and other plantation crops for international markets. As more and more land is used solely for commercial or export-oriented production, land for the production of basic and staple foods for domestic consumption is less available.

4.[Return] For example, in 2012 alone the United States spent $18 billion on immigration enforcement.

5.[Return] The difficulties of making the distinction between refugees and economic migrants became more pronounced from the 1960s when nations were undergoing decolonisation, with simultaneous and interconnected political and economic instability, making categories of refugee and economic migrant less useful to classify migrants.

6.[Return] The notion of the ‘asylum-migration nexus’ (or mixed migration) points to the complex links between the different reasons for migration and the different degrees of agency. The cycle of tighter immigration controls leads to increased irregular migration, which further complicates making distinctions between asylum seekers and unauthorised migrants.

7.[Return] Protection for refugees has emerged as a separate and specific regime, which became central to the human rights agenda through the 1970s and 1980s. As migration is assumed to be a voluntary action, little attention was paid by the UN to migrant rights and protections until the 1990s.

8.[Return] While people displaced by development projects, environmental damage and climate change can be understood as economic refugees, these categories of displaced people can also be understood as separate and distinct from the notion of economic refugees.

2 responses

  1. andreas

    Hello, you mention that this article is based on a research paper. I am writing a thesis on a similar topic and your article was very interesting to read. May I ask you, if you can send me a copy of this research paper you spoke of? I think you can see the E-Mail adress I entered.

    Thank you very much,


    Friday 11 April, 2014 at 1:13 am

    • Hi Andreas, I will send you an email soon.



      Friday 11 April, 2014 at 2:15 pm

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