Refugees, Migrants, Neither, Both: Categorical Fetishism and the Politics of Bounding in Europe’s ‘Migration Crisis’

by Crawley, Heaven, and Dimitris Skleparis. 2018. In Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies 44 (1): 48-64

Key words: migrants, refugees, categories, migration crisis, Europe
Summary by Margaux Dandrifosse (IBEI)


Micro-summary: The politically constructed categories of “migrants” and ”refugees” perpetrate discriminatory and exclusionary practices and fail to capture the multi-faceted and complicated journeys of those arriving at European borders.

Summary: In this article, the authors aim to investigate the politics, effects, and consequences of the categorisation of people arriving in Europe as “migrants” and refugees”, mainly in light of the 2015 migration crisis. They argue that those categories are not neutral labels. Rather, they actively shape policies towards, and the different rights, protection, and legitimacy conferred to newcomers, thereby exercising an exclusionary power. Importantly, Crawley and Skleparis emphasize that those categories are neither static nor naturally defined. They are political constructions that are adapted and transformed over time to suit political interests. For instance, as a reaction to the 2015 migration crisis, European officials have pushed a growing number of people into the category “migrants”, in order to escape the protection and responsibility to which “refugees” are entitled.

Moreover, the authors argue not only that those categories perpetrate exclusionary and discriminatory practices, but they are also not appropriate to capture the multi-faceted, varied, and complicated experiences of people arriving in Europe. The main argument of the text, therefore, lies in the claim that the “migrants”/”refugees” classification promotes a simplified, discriminatory, and politically-calculated framing of those immigrating to Europe. It overlooks the heterogeneous, complex, and changing moving circumstances that people face before reaching European borders. Particularly, those categories ignore the entanglement of conflict-related, economic, and social causes for migrating and the experiences lived in third-countries, in-between the country of origin and the arrival in Europe. Long-term discriminatory, violent, and deplorable economic conditions in third countries blur the lines between refugees, migrants, or neither. To illustrate their argument, Crawley and Skleparis refer to the experiences of Afghans in Iran and Syrians in Turkey before arriving in Europe.

The authors finally conclude by advocating a move beyond the inadequate and politically manipulated “migrants”/”refugees” categorization. They claim that it is necessary to acknowledge the complexity and variety of migrating experiences to develop effective policies aimed at people arriving at European borders.


Follow-up: The authors have written a significant amount of work on the topic of migration in Europe, based on field-work and interviews. The most recent works include: by both authors; “Understanding the dynamics of migration to Greece and the EU: drivers, decisions and destinations” (2016). By Crawley; the book “Unravelling Europe’s ‘Migration Crisis’: Journeys Over Land and Sea” (2017) and “Europe’s ‘war’: African migration and the politics of representation in European policy making” (2019). By Skleparis; “A Europe without Walls, without Fences, without Borders’: A Desecuritisation of Migration Doomed to Fail” (2017) and “Refugee Integration in Mainland Greece: Prospects and Challenges” (2018).

Relevance for the SECUREU Project: This text contributes to the project by showing how, in the EU, labels have the power to securitize a group without an explicit securitizing discourse. It connect with securitizing theories emphasizing the power of language. Those under the label “migrants” are securitized and associated with threats and border controls, while “refugees” are connected with international protection and rights. Accordingly, it would be interesting to examine how the use of such categorizing language in EU working groups, reports, documents, and discourses has played a role in the securitization of migration in Europe. How has the word “migrant” been strategically used to link security and people arriving at European borders? Furthermore, it would be relevant to look at how, since 2015, the growing categorization of those arriving in Europe as “migrants” by EU officials to escape responsibilities associated with “refugees”, has influenced the mounting xenophobia and right-wing populism in European Member States. Indeed, this framing may have contributed to a general sense, in the EU population, that an increasing number of people attempt to reach Europe for economic reasons, rather than fleeing conflicts, which may contribute to economic fear, a sense of unfairness, and a view of the newcomers as illegitimate.

Finally, this article is ever more relevant in light of the UK’s New Plan for Immigration released in March 2021. The Plan aims to refuse asylum to all people who have come to the UK through a third-country considered “safe”. In light of the article, the Plan, therefore, aims to deepen the gap between “migrants” and those allegedly “real refugees”, ignoring the complex conditions experienced by those on the move in third-countries, such as discrimination, no economic prospects, and violence.