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Book Review: Crossing: How we label and react to people on the move

Crossing: How we label and react to people on the move

By Rebecca Hamlin

Book Review by Paul FitzPatrick

This is a timely, stimulating and deeply challenging book for all who wish to support refugees.  At a time when more restrictive policies for admission are proposed, and when the Refugee Convention is rhetorically supported but subverted in practice, Hamlin looks again at the contested concept of ‘the refugee’.

She argues against advocacy positions which cling to the sharp binary between refugees (often also identified as forced migrants, politically motivated, and deserving of support) and economic migrants (often identified as voluntary migrants and economically motivated, who can thus be legitimately excluded by potential host states). The reality is much more complex, if only because economic development, political corruption and armed conflict are closely linked processes.  The migrant-refugee binary, she argues, is deeply damaging for all people on the move.

This distinction rests on three assumptions which she finds questionable:

  • that refugees and migrants have distinct and distinguishable motivations for crossing borders;
  • that refugees are the neediest among the world’s border crossers;
  • and that true refugees are rare, for refugees represent only 10% of the world’s border crossers.

She pursues the workings of this binary contrast in academic studies, in global refugee institutions (UNHCR), and in policy debates in actual crossing situations, such as Syrians in the Middle East, Venezuelans in Latin America (the largest-scale displacement in the history of the Western Hemisphere, but little noticed in the media of the Global North), and the so-called ‘crisis’ of arrivals in Europe between 2014 and 2018.

Academic studies include a discussion of the historical roots of the refugee concept, which I found subtle and informative. While the act of seeking protection is ancient, the idea that an individual is ‘a refugee’ is not.  Hospitality to foreigners in the ancient world stemmed from a kind of moral obligation which was not a function of state sovereignty.  There was no concept of a refugee as a distinct category of border crosser before the modern period.  But the link between modernity and the invention of the refugee can also be misunderstood.  The persecuted Huguenots were highly skilled artisans and therefore economically valuable, and their admission did not create an official process for receiving people.  It continued to be the case that some forms of displacement were linked with being ‘refugees’ while others were not.  The birth of the modern European state did not immediately coincide with tight border control.  It was the end of empire, not its rise, that lead to the peak of anxiety about borders and containment.  The earliest version of the refugee concept emerged as the Westphalian system was altered by the decline of the colonial project, increased global mobility in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and the rise of ethno-nationalism that these two phenomena produced.  Decolonization is thus a key moment in the construction of the refugee concept.

So, what’s to be done, especially when insisting that people are refugees does not make states more open to receiving them?

Hamlin is well aware that (some) advocates will find her arguments woefully misguided and will put refugees at risk.  Her contrasting fear is that the binary logic she has exposed makes harsher border control measures more palatable to the general public, precisely because they will exclude the non-deserving.  It justifies restrictions on the mobility of people from less powerful states to wealthier states with little regard for their level of need, thus justifying border control, so long as it makes some rare exceptions for refugees.  She argues that is difficult to distinguish refugees as uniquely deserving group without discrediting the deservingness of other border crossers.  Language which suggests that most border crossers are migrants posing as refugees allows cruelty to take place within a framework that pays lip service to protecting refugees.

Her study highlights the roles of borders and border controls, and she wants states to accept their responsibility for displacement.  An active commitment to using non-binary language, even in simple forms such as ‘all are welcome’ can herald new possibilities for protecting those in great need.

Crossing: How we label and react to people on the move by Rebecca Hamlin

Stanford University Press 2021. ISBN: 978-1503627871