Are those fleeing persecution and impoverishment so very different?

A boat carrying 450 people from Myanmar and Bangladesh is inspected by Thai Navy officers in the Andaman Sea. EPA/Royal Thai Navy

Indonesian officials have reportedly told Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop that of the 7000 people stranded in boats in the South-East Asian migrant crisis, only 30-40% are Rohingya asylum seekers. The officials described the others as “illegal labourers”.

This political rhetoric demarcates these migrants as two distinct categories: persons seeking asylum from persecution and persons seeking to exploit economic opportunity. However, are these motivations to migrate so easily separated?

The difference between “illegal labourers” and “asylum seekers” appears obvious. The former are seeking work, while the latter are seeking protection. One is being “pulled” from their country by better employment opportunities. The other is being “pushed” from their country by persecution.

It is easy to overlook the complex circumstances of insecurity that drive both “types” to migrate.

Motivations to migrate overlap

Political rhetoric relies heavily on these dualistic categorisations of migrants. What such rhetoric fails to recognise is how the motivations for the migrations of “illegal labourers” and “asylum seekers” often overlap.

Motivations to migrate – and particularly to put oneself in the hands of human traffickers and into dangerous waters in a rickety, overcrowded boat – cannot be simplistically categorised into economic “pull” factors or persecution “push” factors.

Both kinds of migrants move for mixed motivations, which cannot be reduced to a single reason. Many people who flee persecution are also seeking to elevate their family from conditions of insecurity and impoverishment that may, or may not, be related to that persecution. Many people who seek economic opportunity elsewhere may be living in conditions of extreme impoverishment and insecurity that relate to discrimination or persecution due to complex social, cultural or structural factors.

The reality is that motivations to migrate are complicated, mixed and unable to be neatly categorised. That all the migrants involved in the South-East Asian crisis ended up stepping onto the same boats is testament to the shared sense of impoverished humanity that drives people to migrate in the most dangerous of conditions.

The ‘deserving and the ‘undeserving’

The distinction between fleeing persecution and escaping desperate poverty is not always as clear-cut as politicians like Julie Bishop would have it. EPA/Narong Sangnak

In many situations, both “types” of migrant are migrating involuntarily due to conditions in their origin country being untenable for survival. Still, political rhetoric such as that used by Indonesian officials and legitimated by the Australian government aims to obscure from the public the acute insecurity that drives people to seek a better life elsewhere.

Instead, it suits a political purpose to divide these migrants into categories of “asylum seekers” and “illegal labourers”. That is, into categories of “deserving” and “undeserving”.

But research into forced migration shows that a common sense of desperation compels both kinds of migrants. The political rhetoric overlooks this. Applying the label of “asylum seekers” to one group of migrants positions them as deserving of care and attention, while positioning others involved in the same crisis as exploitative.

Why, within these debates, is there so little recognition of the abject poverty that drives “economic migrants” to be human-trafficked, while the persecution that drives “asylum seekers” to be similarly trafficked is so separated from broader forms of economic insecurity?

Perhaps it is because many people must struggle to survive in impoverished conditions across the world, as recent data from the World Bank shows. Why should one lot of people be rewarded for attempting to elevate themselves from conditions that daily confront many millions of people?

Persecution and poverty can both threaten survival

Tapping into the general insecurity that populations across the world face every day is one way for the motivations of economic migrants to be delegitimised. In contrast, the acute risk of persecution associated with asylum seekers is more easily translated into a humanitarian framework of need.

Advocates for asylum seekers often use empathetic questions to emphasise the need for these people to flee their country and seek refuge elsewhere, such as: “What would you do to escape persecution?” and “What would you do if remaining in your country would lead to death?”

What if these empathetic questions were applied to the acute impoverishment many economic migrants face? Advocates might pose these questions: “What would you do to escape abject poverty?” and “What would you do if remaining in your country would put you and your family in conditions of impoverishment that threaten your survival?”

This is not to imply that “asylum seekers” are not a distinct category of migrant. Significant and important legal distinctions differentiate refugees, asylum seekers and other kinds of migrants, as the UNHCR recognises. We need to acknowledge the persecutions that asylum seekers suffer when examining the reasons that motivate people to migrate.

However, the persecution that differentiates “asylum seekers” and “economic migrants” does not mean that refugee migration is not influenced by similar experiences of impoverishment and that labour migration is not influenced by harsh experiences of discrimination and inequality.

While recognising the distinct platform of persecution that motivates refugee migration, the UNHCR also recognises that the lines between economic migrants and asylum seekers can at times be blurred.

Both streams of migration share a common thread of insecurity. These overlapping motivations are absent from political rhetoric that treats these types of migrants as inherently distinct.

It might be better to label all migrants on boats in the South-East Asian seas as “forced migrants”. But while governments continue to debate whose responsibility it is to mediate this crisis, the categorisations will continue to be used to justify particular political agendas while overlooking the needs of the migrants caught up in it.