On Seeking Asylum From Poverty: Why the Refugee / Migrant Paradigm Cannot Hold




Journal Title

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Volume Title


Mixed Migration Platform


Working Paper

Peer reviewed


This paper explores the ‘politics of labelling’ in the UK in relation to the perceived migration ‘crisis’ of 2014-present. Drawing upon philosophical insights in relation to types of violence, I argue that the moral distinction that sustains the labels ‘migrant’ and ‘refugee’ in the present context is untenable, and find that:

  1. The words we use when we talk about people on the move have real, material impact on those people’s lives.
  2. The many people trying to reach Europe during the migration ‘crisis’ of recent years – some fleeing conflict in the Middle East, others coming from Africa and South-East Asia for similar or different reasons – have been represented in our public debate by a binary discourse, according to which each is either a ‘refugee’, fleeing conflict, or a ‘migrant’, travelling through choice, for ‘economic’ reasons.
  3. This refugee/migrant paradigm has been embraced and utilised across the British political spectrum, with the ideological Right seeking to keep out so-called ‘economic migrants’ and the Left championing slogans like ‘refugees are welcome’ in response.
  4. But, as I argue in this paper, this ‘politics of labelling’ is not only flawed in its binary construction of identity, which goes against the grain of people’s real, complex lives, it also reinforces a dubious moral distinction: that people seeking to escape poverty are in some sense less deserving of asylum than people seeking to escape armed conflict.
  5. I conclude that it is possible to seek asylum from poverty, and that the refugee/migrant paradigm that has developed in recent years should be resisted for the false moral distinction it draws, and the policies of asylum denial this enables.



migration, refugee crisis, poverty, structural violence


Whitham, Ben (2017) On Seeking Asylum From Poverty: Why the Refugee / Migrant Paradigm Cannot Hold, MMP Guest-Authored Series, No. 1, (Amman: MMP).


Research Institute

Media Discourse Centre (MDC)