Correcting @strom_m’s ‘Explainer’ on refugee semantics

Journalists should stop pretending that they know what they’re talking about.

In today’s Sydney Morning Herald, Marcus Strom has a red-hot go at ‘explaining’ the different words used in refugee policy.  Not only does he get everything wrong, he stuffs up the basic philosophy of how public policy discussions should work.

Strom’s key question is a simple one: ‘What is the difference between migration, refuge and asylum?’  He wants to ask this question to lead into a discussion of a much more difficult subject: ‘Is seeking refuge or asylum in another country a criminal act?’

But then Strom’s ‘analysis’ immediately goes off the rails.  Like many people who don’t know what the funk they are talking about, they turn to the Refugees Convention to find definitions for the phrases being used in public debate.  This is a nonsense approach as we all know far too well.  During the marriage equality debate, many homophobes turned to the Marriage Act to say: ‘See?  Marriage is between a man and a woman!’  And when it was pointed out to them that the whole purpose of the discussion was about changing the Marriage Act, they turned instead to various dictionaries that affirmed their arguments.

There is no obligation — none at all — to make sure that your use of the word ‘refugee’ in public discussion is consistent with the Refugees Convention.  The Refugees Convention should not even be your starting point for the conversation because you might (correctly, sensibly, and rationally) want to extend the protections that we afford to people we intuit to be refugees who do not meet the Convention definition.

Case in point: not all of the Syrians who fled Syria will meet the Convention definition.  Strom tries to evade this problem by handwaving ‘prima facie refugees’ which is a complex concept arising from the UNHCR handbook.  If Strom is to be taken literally (which would be unfair and uncharitable) then he thinks a refugee is anybody who meets the Convention definition or who is part of a group specified by the UNHCR.  Which is wrong.

A refugee is somebody who seeks refuge, regardless of whether or not they meet the Convention definition.  If these people were internally displaced, for example, we would still intuit them as refugees even though the Convention requires them to be outside their country of nationality (Article 1).

This isn’t just some minor point either.  There are a lot of people who are trying to expand (correctly, sensibly, and rationally) the Convention definition of a refugee.  The five categories —  persecution for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion  — were established back in the 1950s and do not reflect contemporary issues.  For example, people who are persecuted because they are gay or because they are women have to squeeze in under ‘particular social group’, sometimes unsuccessfully.  In Australia, we got around this problem by introducing ‘complementary protection’, where we afford protection to people who do not meet the Convention definition but whom we feel we ought to protect.  If somebody who received complementary protection status one day referred to themselves as a refugee, I wouldn’t expect some fedora-wearing pedant to crash through the wall saying ‘Actually, “refugee” is defined by the Refugees Convention as…’

Strom’s approach nobbles this attempt to expand the definition for no discernible benefit.

Similarly, Strom uses sub-legal resources to define ‘migrant’: ‘A  migrant, in comparison, may leave his or her country for many reasons that are not related to persecution,’ says Antonio Guterres, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, in a document that outlines his personal appeal for non-signatory States to accede to the Convention.  But Guterres isn’t defining a ‘migrant’, he is explaining how he’s distinguishing the plight of Convention refugees.

We all know what a migrant is.  It’s a person who migrates.  It’s not a term of art.  As noted above, a person can’t be a refugee unless they are a migrant.  One of the early functions of the International Organisation for Migration  was assisting Hungarian refugees.  Nobody waved their hands about and said, ‘Wait, wait, wait!  Refugees aren’t migrants!  You have no power here, IOM!’

Even then, Strom bungles the application of his definition: ‘a “migrant” is anyone who seeks to move overseas’.  Well, no.  A person might ‘seek’ to move overseas but not have the means.  Using Guterres’ distinction, ‘a “migrant” was somebody who voluntarily moved overseas’.  But even that might not be accurate because people who are trafficked are also migrants.

Strom has a weird legal theory problem with his definition of ‘asylum seeker’ that’s only worth mentioning in passing.  He’s right when he says that an asylum seeker is a person who is seeking protection, but he is incorrect when he says that an asylum seeker is a potential refugee.  One doesn’t ‘become’ a refugee by magic of administrative determination.  One is a refugee; an asylum seeker wants to have that status confirmed.  But now I’m the one being pedantic.

Then Strom drops some random factoids without analysis, and then wraps it up without answering the question of whether refugees/asylum seekers could be illegal immigrants (they can — indeed, they were in Australia until 1994).

But let’s get to the heart of Strom’s problem.  The only reason he wrote that article was to establish ‘neutral’ language for the purposes of avoiding criticism.  Strom thinks — as many erroneously do — that if you use ‘neutral’ language, then you can have better, clearer, more rational public discussions.  It’s an utterly incorrect position.  By determining a set of words are beyond debate, we lack the ability to interrogate the words that we are using to discuss public policy issues.  Again, refer to the marriage equality debate where homophobes tried to put the word ‘marriage’ beyond debate by claiming it had an essential definition.

I have argued before that we should use the phrase ‘illegal entrants’ to refer to asylum seekers because we actually treat criminals better than the way we treat refugees.  If we are punishing somebody, we hold ourselves to particular standards (and, indeed, give them a trial to determine whether they should continue to be detained).  If somebody’s asking us for help, then we feel that they should be grateful for whatever assistance we provide to them.

Strom clumsily and ignorantly waded into a public policy debate to ‘explain’ something that he himself did not understand.  It’s a failing that we are seeing all too regularly from journalists who simply will not admit that things are beyond their intellectual grasp.

Author: Mark Fletcher

Mark Fletcher is a Canberra-based PhD student, writer, and policy wonk who writes about law, conservatism, atheism, and popular culture. Read his blog at OnlyTheSangfroid. He tweets at @ClothedVillainy

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