Mixed Meaning: The challenges of language and definition in mixed migration work

Complexity, in matters of mixed migration in the Middle East, is not the sole preserve of the conflict situations that act as a key driver of movement. The language of migration, for example, and the implications it can have for the protection of people on the move, cannot be underestimated. If someone has been displaced, can we say they are migrating? Should a trafficked person be afforded the same protection as a refugee fleeing conflict? Does the moral argument for assisting someone stand up to an argument based on structural issues (which could, for example, affect an individual’s livelihood or income) within a country?

This article looks at the importance of, and debate around, language, definitions and categorisations within mixed migration narratives.

The New York Declaration for Refugees and Migrants marks a significant step forward for such matters of language. One of the declaration’s less-heralded achievements is its omission of the language of ‘crisis’, preferring to refer to “the growing global phenomenon of large movements of refugees and migrants”. Whether or not these movements are ‘unprecedented’, as the declaration also states, is moot (large-scale movement of people has always occurred); what matters is that migration is not framed as something that is new, nor something that is a threat.

As experts like Professor Heaven Crawley have argued, the numbers of people who arrived in Europe over the course of 2014-16 do not constitute a ‘crisis’, and the framing of this migration situation in such a way has changed how people in Europe see migrants and refugees – in an overwhelmingly negative way (and this narrative is then amplified by various populist and racist media outlets in many European countries). The misappropriation of the word ‘crisis’ – which would be better applied to a country such as Lebanon where approximately one in four individuals is a refugee and public services are under enormous strain – and how it has resultantly empowered voices that are less empathetic, shows the importance of language in such politically sensitive matters.

Difficulties of definition permeate all aspects of mixed migration, including the term itself. Even the verb ‘migrate’ can be seen as problematic – if we are to say that refugees and asylum seekers form part of mixed migration flows, can we say that they ‘migrate’? A dictionary definition of the word speaks of moving to “a new area or country in order to find work or better living conditions”, a broad definition that could encompass any individual on the move. In specific situations (emergency response, for example), however, many would find this definition inadequate and sweeping. On the other hand, using this definition one could say that a refugee is both displaced (moved from their habitual location) and migrating (moving to a new location to seek better living conditions, where their life is not under threat). There are other considerations when applying such definitions but a simple semantic discussion highlights the foundational difficulties of the language of mixed migration (and is dealt with much more rigorously by people like Jørgen Carling, using his inclusivist/residualist argument). At a global level, the lines have been drawn – the two separate compacts (1,2) that came about as a result of the New York Declaration cement the distinction between refugees and migrants.

The Mixed Migration Platform (MMP) regularly encounters such challenges when discussing people on the move. A forthcoming piece, for instance, looks at the implications associated with defining persons who move as a result of climate and environmental factors. MMP is explicit about how it describes those who move in mixed migration flows – the term it uses, ‘refugees and other migrants’, includes refugees, asylum seekers, economic migrants, trafficked and smuggled persons and so on. It furthermore stresses that the journeys of people on the move can be non-linear, spatially and temporally. What of people who are first displaced, then settle in a different country, but later choose to move of their own volition for economic reasons? Are there time limits to our definitions? Should political factors in a person’s country of origin ultimately dictate their status? What of people who choose to move for both economic and security reasons?

The implications of such linguistic ambiguity for a humanitarian and developmental system that uses categorisations in structuring itself are clear. What then is the entry point for the work of humanitarian and development actors in this regard (and indeed for their government and private sector counterparts) when designing response programmes for a target population? With funding for such work consistently under pressure, how do these organisations best utilise their resources to identify potential vulnerabilities of people on the move and respond accordingly? If structural conditions in a person’s country of origin hasten their individual-level poverty and drive them to move, for example, one might argue that this person should receive support. MMP argues that a solid evidence base will improve humanitarian and developmental decision-making. The platform champions a need for better clarity of mixed migration information (1, 2) and for consideration of those that fall outside of typical protection responses (for example, those on alternative routes and those who stay behind).

Mixed migration is an emotive and politically charged subject but it should not be seen as a new ‘phenomenon’ nor necessarily, by the same measure, a group of individuals moving en masse. We speak of people moving in mixed migration flows but mixed migration is also a lens of analysis – the term is too frequently restricted to a literal interpretation and not an analytical one. This lens helps generate an evidence base that provides balanced information on derivable benefits, and constructive suggestions for challenges, that people on the move can bring. In spite of some of the difficulties of definition outlined above, these should not take primacy in discussions of mixed migration. Actors involved in mixed migration need to work to ensure the rights of all people on the move are upheld, while highlighting the positive contributions that refugees and other migrants make to societies, cultures and economies in transit and destination countries, both on an individual and collective level.

Note: This post was originally published as an article on the SDC Migration Network Newsletter in April 2017.

This article also appeared on the Mixed Migration Platform website.