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International Migrants Day: it’s often too simple to differentiate between migrants and refugees


Bertilio and stephanie
Bertilio* and his 17-year-old daughter, Stephanie*

I’m British, but my mother’s family is Russian. They fled the Russian Revolution and found a safe home and a new future in the UK.

I have never needed to justify why I am here. Nor has my mother, or her mother. We are fortunate.


A touchy subject

Migration is a touchy subject, here in the UK and around the world. We live within invisible, permeable technological borders and more tangible real-world ones.

People who want to provide a better future for their family must often justify their worthiness and what they will bring to the negotiating table – money or skills.

Refugees – those fleeing war, death or persecution – tend to be viewed less harshly, by the authorities and by the public. In contrast, economic migrants are often seen as a threat. They may have very few skills.

There may be the worry that they will prove a burden on the new state they come to. Somehow, the right to flee crushing poverty and inequality is not seen as legitimate.


Child migrants in Central America

I’ve spent the last few months in Central America working with child migrants, many of whom have attempted the dangerous (sometimes fatal) journey to the US.

Many have no skills to offer, and no money. That’s precisely why they are risking their lives in this way: they want the hope of a better life.

And, while authorities differentiate strictly between refugees and economic migrants, the truth is often much less clear-cut: areas of great poverty are usually dangerous places to live.


Insecurity not poverty is  the cause of migration

“Poverty is not the cause of migration,” Bertilio*, a father I met in El Salvador, told me. “It’s the insecurity”.

His daughter, Stephanie*, and nephew, Jose*, fled the violence in their neighbourhood. Stephanie wants to be a doctor, but violence prevents her going to college.

Technically, they are economic migrants, so the border is closed to them. There is a route for children to seek refugee status, but Stephanie would almost certainly not qualify.


A dangerous place to be a child

Central America is one of the world’s most dangerous places to be a child. Male children are more likely to die through homicide than car accidents, illness or anything else.

Regardless of immigration patrol’s checklist, differentiating between refugees and economic migrants, most children attempting the journey out are escaping violence in some form.

“I can’t think what my hopes are for the future. I just can’t,” says Jose. “I just want to help my mother and my younger brothers. Maybe if I made it to the US I could one day come back and move away with my family.”


Jose*, trapped by his refusal to join a gang

Trapped by his refusal of violence

Jose refuses to join a gang in his neighbourhood and is therefore considered to be a target and cannot leave his home, cannot go to school.

“Maybe after some time has passed, the gangs will have forgotten me,” he says.

People fear that softening migration policies will bring problems – but many of those in poverty will not leave their homelands if they are given the option to make a viable future for themselves and their children there.


To solve the problem we must tackle it head-on

Until we tackle the root causes of violence in these communities in Central America – the inequality, the poverty, the lack of opportunity – people will continue to make these perilous journeys.

We must find ways to protect children like Jose, wherever in the world they are. And one thing is certain: simplistic questionnaires, holding pens and border controls will never solve the problem.


*names changed to protect identity

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