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United Nations General Assembly 2019

This series decodes deals, political moves, and gossip at the world’s biggest political summit.

AP Photo/Rodrigo Abd
People who fled Central America walking toward the US border.
THE POWER OF A LABEL

Who are the “economic refugees” Imran Khan spoke about at the UNGA?

Annalisa Merelli
By Annalisa Merelli

Geopolitics reporter

In line with its xenophobic policies, the Trump administration announced this week a revised cap on the number of refugees the US will resettle: In 2020, 18,000 will be accepted—almost half of this year’s 30,000, and a further cut to a program that has been drastically reduced since Donald Trump took office.

It’s a low number, especially considering the world now faces more displaced people (over 65 million) than at any point in history. Out of the 18,000 slots, 5,000 are reserved for people fleeing religious persecution, with priority given to Christians. Another few thousand are allotted to people who helped the US in Iraq.

There’s more: Most projections suggest that the number of displaced people will keep going up, not least as climate change continues to threaten environments and livelihoods. The term “climate refugee” has been introduced to describe people leaving an environment permanently modified by a changing climate. Rising temperatures and water scarcity will lead to more frequent draughts, which will lead to famines, which will lead to mass displacement.

While it’s somewhat common for political leaders and human rights experts to discuss “climate refugees,” many of these displaced individuals were once labeled instead as “environmental migrants,” particularly when affected not only by a catastrophic event but also ongoing hardship. It’s not a small change in status: The distinction between “refugees” and “migrants” is as controversial as it is powerful, as it essentially encapsulates the difference between having a right to asylum or not.

Underpinning the distinction is a questionable assumption accepted by most world leaders and human rights organizations: Poverty isn’t a big enough distress to qualify someone for asylum. So while a person who endured a long, perilous, and often life-threatening journey to escape from violence is eligible for asylum, one who goes through the same hardship to escape extreme poverty is not. (Ironically, it is by and large rich countries that decided upon this rule.)

This is at the core of how the Trump administration views the contested “caravans” that have headed toward the US from Central America: Because some members declared they are looking for work, they have broadly been labeled economic migrants, and not asylum seekers or refugees.

Pakistan’s prime minister Imran Khan, while discussing corruption in poor countries during a speech yesterday at the United Nations General Assembly, asked for support in helping developing nations fight money laundering and tax evasion. While doing so, he said, “Unless the rich countries intend to build walls to stop economic refugees coming as we see right now, they must take action.”

The comment wasn’t just sarcastically referring to Trump’s infamous border wall. More powerful was his use of the descriptor “economic refugees,” a category that most human rights experts seem to have stopped believing exists. By including economic distress, much like climate, amongst conditions worthy of refugee status, he erased the distinction between economic migrants and refugees.

In a world where some governments measure their success in dealing with refugees by how small the number they take in is, it is a radical description. It presumes that economic wellbeing isn’t a right only for the rich, which is the ultimate premise behind the denial of rights to people displaced by economic hardship. It also frames poverty as an emergency at the same level as war, or natural disaster, as opposed to it being just a state of things, which is what the current framework on refugees somewhat rests on.

And while it might be controversial, “economic refugees” appears to be a more honest way to look at the millions forced to leave their homes.