A conversation with Dr. Ben Whitham

What is the difference between a “refugee” and a “migrant”? And why does it matter?

The basic difference between the two designations, according to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), is that “refugees are persons fleeing armed conflict or persecution”, while migrants “choose to move not because of a direct threat of persecution or death, but mainly to improve their lives by finding work, or in some cases for education, family reunion, or other reasons”.

That, indeed, is the barest of explanations and does not capture the full impact of how the designations impact people.

Dr. Ben Whitham, a lecturer in international relations at the UK’s De Montfort University, recently kicked off MMP’s Guest Authored series with On seeking asylum from poverty: why the refugee/migrant paradigm cannot hold. Dr. Whitham’s paper explores the “politics of labelling” in the UK that was spurred by the increased movement of refugees and other migrants to Europe between 2014 and 2016.

Whitham was inspired to write about labelling after seeing stories with dramatic images in the British media in 2014 and 2015. In those stories, politicians and commentators were “talking about the comparative status of people who were arriving very visibly in boats”, Dr. Whitham said in a recent conversation with MMP.


“What became increasingly entrenched in those media representations was that everyone had to fit into one category or another – they were either asylum seekers or economic migrants”, he said.

He sensed “a repurposing of the word ‘migrant’”.

“I think there was a moral shading of economic migrants as doing something bad because they were being represented as making a choice of leaving behind their country as opposed to staying and improving the economy in their country”, Dr. Whitham said.

When British politicians and others use the label “migrant” in that way, they are implying that people who flee without the backdrop of a civil war are making an immoral choice by abandoning their country. This type of demonising, of setting up an unrealistic binary choice based on definitions of “hero” and “villain”, is a game that politicians have played for years.

“The tactic is extremely effective. ‘You’re either this or you’re that’ is a well-evidenced and old way of winning people over. It goes back to religion…good and evil”, Dr. Whitham said.

Other factors, including racism, might also contribute to the definitions and the feelings behind them.

He offered one example: The many Brits who have moved to Spain for what they hope will be a better life are referred to “as expatriates or expats”, which conjures an image of people enjoying an exotic, prosperous life.

“I think there’s racism involved in the general way migration is portrayed in Europe and the wider Western world and the US as well”, he said. “It comes partly in the form of the dehumanising of people who are travelling to Europe or to the US”.

In other academic research, Whitham looks at representations of Muslims amid the rise of right-wing populism in Europe and the West. In the most negative depictions, people from majority-Muslim countries are portrayed as potential terrorism threats.

Dr. Whitham does see glimmers of optimism amid this politics of labelling.

“While the present political crisis presents many dangers – to various minorities, to women, to people on the move – it nevertheless also represents an unprecedented opportunity”, Dr. Whitham said. “Critical positions and radical social movements, from the new feminisms to trans rights, anti-racist, and anti-colonial movements, are being mainstreamed as never before”.

This multitude of perspectives makes it harder to perpetuate the refugee/migrant paradigm.

“These kinds of binaries”, he said, “don’t capture real life”.