Impossible Task: Sorting Economic and Political Refugees

As the globe’s population swells – from about 2 billion people a century ago to more than 7 billion today – migration numbers are on the rise, too, from 173 million in 2000 to about 250 million today. “International law and definitions have not kept pace,” argues Will Hickey, author and associate professor with the School of Government and Public Policy in Indonesia. He analyzes the dilemma for countries in trying to separate refugees based on their motivation, whether that may be economic or political. Welcome and treatment for refugees also varies widely among nations, leading many people to cross multiple borders. Hickey therefore asks, “Wouldn’t crossing subsequent borders implicate the political refugee ascription as to migrants seeking a better life, hence rendering the political asylum process moot as an economic migrant is devolved?” Refugees' search for a better life, and the line between economic and political security is blurred. Sorting and judging the worthiest refugees may be an impossible task, Hickey concludes, and the stories from either side may be equally heartbreaking. – YaleGlobal

Impossible Task: Sorting Economic and Political Refugees

Growing numbers of refugees cross multiple borders, and nations tighten rules to separate those who pursue economic versus political security
Will Hickey
Thursday, October 19, 2017

Arbitrating life and death: While some nations and their citizens support asylum-seekers, other countries worry about being overwhelmed, including Turkey where soldiers block Syrian refugees at the border

JAKARTA: The European Union is going out of its way to distinguish asylum seekers from economic migrants even though institutional economists, who focus on how systems change behavior, have long derided attempts to handle politics and economics as exclusively discrete. At the core, the issue may seem dichotomous, promoting freedom versus advancement, but appearances are deceiving.

Consider Germany’s plan to expel several thousand Balkan economic refugees to accommodate hundreds of thousands of newly arriving asylum seekers from Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq besieging its borders and putting significant pressure on EU countries in the Schengen agreement zone. Some EU nations are building fences and fortifying borders with fellow EU members. Many analysts point to Angela Merkel’s liberal policies on immigration as a reason for her party losing seats in parliament and a far-right party doing so well.


The economy and politics are inextricably intertwined: All political problems are rooted in economic ones and vice versa, argued Douglas North, who received the Nobel Prize in Economics for his theory on “natural state” of human existence. He suggested that much of the world remains defined by personal transactions and favoritism whereby forming and enforcing agreements are limited to an exclusive group of elites. If there is no political gain-sharing or democratic channels among groups in a given society, the theory suggests, those excluded rebel and seek greener pastures elsewhere as economic necessity.

The theory describes Syria today, with civil war and no economic advancement. North argues that a sustainable and open society requires enfranchisement and empowerment of all competing groups. Only a handful of countries, mostly in Scandinavia and Northern Europe, have reached this level of cognizance. The real issues of the Balkans, for example, and transitory migrants are of integration and identity. A legacy of communism forced cultural homogeneity, and historically, the dividing line of Christian/Islamic identity has always been contentious there.  Modern secularist mandates cannot neatly solve such conflicts.    

The dilemma of political refugees versus economic migrants is not new, and Germany is not alone in struggling to determine the worthiest or neediest migrants – which persons or families deserve asylum and which do not.  Harvard’s Michael Teitelbaum’s 1980 prediction that immigrants and refugees would become among the most troubling issues was prescient. Teitelbaum has researched international migration for decades and argues that economics is a strong driver for why people migrate and become refugees.

Teitelbaum and North each understood that economics and politics cannot be cleanly separated. There are gray areas, often complicated by contradictory policies, such as skilled and family-based migration. Multiple examples can be found within the context of recent mass migrations – the Rohingya fleeing Myanmar, Syrians fleeing civil war, Tamils fleeing political retribution in Sri Lanka, Guatemalans fleeing gang and drug violence as well as North Koreans and South Sudanese fleeing brutal political oppression.

Malcolm Turnbull, the prime minister of Australia, has proclaimed that no one arriving by boat should be allowed to permanently settle in that country. Besides Australia’s controversial policy of placing illegal migrants in third countries such as Papua New Guinea and Cambodia for payment, he posited questions, ones that should not be immediately dismissed as political pandering: If migration is really about refugee status, then shouldn’t political obligations stop at the first border?  Wouldn’t crossing subsequent borders hence render the political asylum process moot?  

Countries can be both embarkation and host countries depending on the reasons for migration, as well as transit countries and destination countries, depending on anticipated welcome, support and affinity.  


Refugee Pretext




Sri Lanka - Tamil

civil war/




Burma - Rohingya

ethnic strife





civil war

Turkey/ Baltics/ Lebanon

Germany/ Sweden







North Korea

political oppression


South Korea



civil war/political


Italy/ Europe

not applicable


mass poverty





political oppression

Eastern Europe



Sub-Saharan Africa

mass poverty/ political oppression




Refugee transit routes: The path from persecuted to economic refugee crosses multiple borders, going through more than one country (Source: Will Hickey)

Migration numbers are on the rise, from 173 million in 2000 to 222 million in 2010 and 244 million in 2015. International law and definitions have not kept pace. Three characteristics of modern migrants are behind the rising numbers:

Technologically adept – Many migrants manipulate technology during cross-border travel, for example, relying on Google maps for planning journeys and social networking to find members of law enforcement who will come to their aid. Mobile phones are used to reach out to international media. 

Legally knowledgeable – Migrants are increasingly aware of Western rights and concepts including anchor babies, the legal right of automatic citizenship granted to any child born on US or Canadian territory regardless of parents’ legal standing; asylum offers in Germany and elsewhere in the European Union to those from war-torn nations like Yemen or Syria; and the lack of a language requirement in Sweden.

Economically prudent – Migrants, even the most desperate Syrians fleeing the war, assess cost-risk scenarios. Comparing stories from friends, family and the internet, they decide whether to use smugglers to cross the Aegean Sea or bicycles to cross the Russia-Norway border in the far north. Costs factor into decisions on whether to use smugglers or strike out on their own, take a bus or a €500 taxi, try a rubber dinghy or pay more for a speedboat.

A core principle of the 1951 Refugee Convention asserts that refugees should not be returned to a country where they face serious threats to life or freedom. But as refugees cross borders in search of increasing levels of safety, the migration takes on complex legalities and a gradual process toward economic migrant status. Theoretically, an initial transit by an asylum seeker in Serbia, Mexico or Jordan could be the defining litmus of a political versus economic refugee. For example, China, a signatory to the treaty, frequently returns asylum-seeking North Koreans directly to hostile conditions as economic refugees despite resettlement pleas by South Korea.

The Refugee Convention outlines basic standards for treatment including access to courts, primary education, work and travel documents similar to passports. But sympathy can decline over time. There are delays in registration and rough treatment along with minimal provisions for education, health care or employment.

Countries have discovered that generosity attracts overwhelming numbers of refugees, and they discourage migrants by making deals with developing nations and insisting that refugees cannot pursue multiple border crossings. Thus, a Syrian refugee under threat of war in his home country could forfeit this claim to political refugee status after setting foot in Turkey or Jordan.  

As Syrians pass through Greece or Hungary and on to Germany, their claims to persecution quickly diminishes, however unpalatable that may seem. Whether it be the Rohingyas in Bangladesh or Syrians stranded in Serbia, the United Nations and governments are trying the impossible task of establishing definitions for economic versus political refugees. The lines have become blurred, with the ultimate decisions, predisposed to cultural and historical prejudices, no less heartbreaking.

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