Seeking asylum from poverty: Contesting the refugee/migrant paradigm




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Green Economics Institute


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Peer reviewed



Media coverage of people trying to enter the EU from the Middle East, South-East Asia and Africa has, over the last year, made much of the difference between ‘refugees’ or ‘asylum seekers’ on the one hand, and ‘economic migrants’ or simply ‘migrants’ on the other. The argument goes that while the former have legitimacy in fleeing to Europe for protection from the violence of war and persecution, the latter are essentially coming through choice rather than necessity and really ought to stay in their own countries and help to build stronger, more resilient economies. Politicians from across the mainstream political spectrum have also bought into this discursive framing, with David Cameron talking of a ‘swarm’ and ‘bunch of migrants’ and Jeremy Corbyn and other figures on the left emphasising that ‘refugees’ are welcome in the UK. Both sides of the debate seem to accept the distinction between these two categories of traveller arriving on Europe’s shores; an ontological and moral distinction between the refugee and the migrant. This paper explores the basis of the distinction between refugees and migrants and employs the concept of structural violence – as developed in particular by Johan Galtung and Slavoj Žižek – to argue that the distinction cannot hold. Through a critical analysis of what the refugee/migrant paradigm discursively achieves, I argue that it should be contested in favour of a hybrid view, wherein it is altogether possible to seek asylum or refuge from the ‘structural’ violence of poverty with the same urgency and moral considerations at stake as in cases of people fleeing the ‘direct’ violence of war, detention, torture and persecution. This argument is rooted in a postcolonial view of global political economy. I conclude that we cannot make a meaningful moral or ethical distinction between ‘migrants’ and ‘refugees’ and that this explanatory paradigm and binaristic discursive representation must therefore be vigorously contested.



migration, refugee crisis, poverty


Whitham, Ben (2016) Seeking asylum from poverty: Contesting the refugee/migrant paradigm. In: Miriam Kennett and Henry Fielgar (eds.), Introducing Migration, Oxford: Green Economics Institute.


Research Institute

Media Discourse Centre (MDC)