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Introduction: The Politics of the Migrant/Refugee Binary

May 4, 2022

Introduction: The Politics of the Migrant/Refugee Binary

Lamis Abdelaaty, Rebecca Hamlin

Journal of Immigrant & Refugee Studies, April 2022

Lamis Abdelaaty

Lamis Abdelaaty


This special issue interrogates the categorization and labeling of border crossers, particularly the categories of migrant and refugee as they are used in distinction with one another. The importance of this topic for the future of migration and refugee studies is difficult to overstate. As the mass displacement of Ukrainians captured the attention of the world in the spring of 2022, European leaders, UNHCR and many other advocates, as well as major media outlets, were quick to label it a “refugee crisis” despite the fact that most people fleeing Ukraine are unlikely to meet the legal definition for formal refugee status. The global reaction to this humanitarian tragedy stands in sharp contrast to the reaction in Europe to the mass arrivals of 2015–16. At that moment, Syrians, Afghans, Iraqis and others were frequently labeled as irregular migrants, their motives and deservingness thus called into question. Similarly, the ongoing arrivals of sub-Saharan Africans to Europe, and Central Americans to the United States are predominantly labeled as crises of migration, the insinuation being that the people who continue to make dangerous journeys in the hopes of accessing the Global North are economically motivated, despite the fact that many of them are desperately fleeing conflict and violence.