Survival Migration

A new approach is needed to handle the refugee situation—one that recognizes the contemporary realities of “survival migration” and relies on international cooperation rather than unilateralism.

The crisis in the Americas—like the European one before it—has raised questions about the usefulness of conventional categories such as “refugees” and “economic migrants.” The UN’s 1951 Refugee Convention defined a refugee as someone who has “a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion.” In the 1980 Refugee Act, the U.S. Congress enshrined that description in U.S. law, as well. But the 1951 definition was written to address the upheavals of the early Cold War, especially the emigration of Soviet dissidents.

Today, most migrants are not fleeing powerful regimes that are out to get them. Nor are they simply seeking better economic opportunities. Rather, they are running from states that have failed or that are so fragile that life has become difficult to bear for their citizens.

What Europe saw in 2015 and what the Americas are witnessing today are not simply refugee flows or market-driven population movements but rather “survival migration”—a term I initially coined to describe the exodus of Zimbabweans from Robert Mugabe’s regime in the early years of this century. Between 2003 and 2010, around two million Zimbabweans fled to South Africa and other neighboring states. Most of them wanted to escape hyperinflation, banditry, and food insecurity—the economic consequences of the underlying political situation—rather than political persecution per se.

From How Governments in the Americas Are Bungling the Migration Crisis, by Alexander Betts November/December 2019

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