Refugee or Migrant?: Rebecca Hamlin Addresses Dangers of Binary Immigration Language

Rebecca Hamlin, associate professor of legal studies and political science at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and author of Crossing: How We Label and React to People on the Move, spoke about the dangers of using binary language to define migrants and refugees at an event on Sept. 21. 

“The binary … elevates the suffering of some people above the suffering of others, basically deferring the most difficult ethical conversations that states could be having but choose not to have,” she said.

Hamlin spoke about her book in an event hosted by the Center for Human Rights and International Justice at the Boston College Law School. She started her talk by looking back to 2015, when a photo of Alan Kurdi, a toddler left face down, drowned on a Greek beach, went viral. 

Hamlin said the media tried to differentiate between migrants and refugees when addressing the photo.

“There was this flurry of what I call explainer articles,” she said. “Every news outlet published an article that asked the question, what is the difference between a migrant and a refugee, and which one is coming across the Mediterranean Sea to Europe?”

Hamlin said such “explainer articles” push a binary narrative. 

“It’s a way of seeing the world in binary terms where every single border crosser’s either a migrant or a refugee,” Hamlin said. 

Binary narratives allow a way for people to neatly characterize who is and is not deserving of help, according to Hamlin. 

“Binary logic is essentialist and borderless,” she said. “That there is this essential quality of refugee-ness that people either possess or don’t possess. That’s why these explainer articles are so satisfying. You’re just satisfied with the answer that the system is going to find the people who are the neediest.”

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has played a massive role in upholding the binary, especially through its social media presence in the last few years, according to Hamlin. She explained why the UNHCR aims to uphold such narratives. 

“It can help UNHCR stick out its mandate to assist one specific type of border crosser, that’s defining itself out of a much larger regime complex of migration governments,” Hamlin said. 

The UNHCR, concerned over its donors in privileged middle class areas, Hamlin said, attempts to appeal to its demographic. According to her, the organization tries to accomplish this by separating refugees into a needier group. 

“They want to reach the anxious middle and convince them not to be afraid of refugees,” Hamlin said. “UNHCR is very concerned about the populist term in donor states. They … reassure the majority of voters and donor states that refugees are not a threat because obligations to refugees do not extend to every border prospect.”

Hamlin said there are ethical ramifications of the UNHCR’s strategy. 

“Such frames allow powerful states to sidestep the most difficult political discussions about the ethics of border control by suggesting that harsh measures are just, so long as they make rare exceptions for refugees,” Hamlin said. 

Serena Parekh, a professor of philosophy at Northeastern University and the director of the politics, philosophy, and economics program there, agreed with Hamlin.

“I agree that the rigid distinction between preserving refugees and migrants as undeserving of even basic dignity and respect is untenable at best and morally repugnant at worst,” Parekh said.

Parekh, though, differed from Hamlin’s belief to completely eliminate the use of binary language between refugees and migrants.

“If we shouldn’t make distinctions between kinds of migrants, how do we argue for moral obligations to people in desperate need?” she asked. “A term like refugee … transfers a moral weight. I wonder if we lose a small foothold that we have with the language of refugees and will be less likely to mobilize political and other resources to help refugees.”

Responding, Hamlin said a distinction could be made between the legal distinction of refugees from the social one. 

“My hope is that we can get away from a public discourse that confuses what is the legal status category with what is much more essentialist language,” she said. “That is really problematic.”

Hamlin said the privileged in the world hold a lot of weight in the realms of legislation and decision making.

“I do think a much more frank, open, honest conversation needs to be had among the most privileged people in the world about the amount of violence they’re willing to tolerate to protect their privilege,” she said.

Stephen Mooney / For the Heights

September 26, 2021