By Francesca Fletcher
You can’t turn on the news these days without seeing another headline about refugees, migrants or asylum seekers. Especially in post-truth America, these words are bandied about freely. But how many of us really understand what these terms mean? And how do the stories relate to the reality?
This is a vital issue for us because the many of the women in our programs are migrants, whether internal or international. Understanding their motives for moving is key to serving them well. We thought we’d briefly outline the three most common types of migration for you, so you can sound smart at dinner parties and be an ally to the migrants around you.
When people choose to leave their home country for financial reasons, this is called economic migration. It is perhaps the most demonised type of migration. We have all heard people say, “Why can’t they just stay in their home country? They are just greedy for more money - they are taking all our jobs!”
In fact, most economic migrants are leaving untenable situations at home: it is only because of dire need that most migrants feel forced to leave their families behind and move into an unstable and unknown environment. Others are highly trained in a specific career, but are unable to find any work in that avenue in their home country.
Many of the women we serve send money back home to their families, whether they are in a different part of Thailand or in Burma. Without them, their younger siblings would be unable to go to school and their parents would struggle to make ends meet.
Plus, contrary to popular belief, economic migrants usually benefit the economy of their new country.
People can become political migrants for a number of reasons. Their home town may have become part of a warzone. They may be the targets of ethnically- or religiously-driven persecution. They may be part of a political party that is objectionable to the current government.
A political migrant will often become an IDP (internally displaced person) as he or she seeks to move within the home country to a safer area. In the most extreme circumstances, those that are able will try to migrate internationally, and seek asylum in a safe country. Political migrants are most likely to be referred to as ‘refugees’.
Not all migrants move because of systemic injustice or poverty. Many struggle to adapt to changing environments (often due to climate change but sometimes due to man-made situations, like dams) and when adaptation finally becomes impossible, their survival depends on the abandonment of their home. Others are forced to move by a natural disaster.
The UNHCR prefers not to describe environmental migrants as refugees for a number of reasons, but that does not mean that they don’t need just as much understanding and support as refugees.
Family reunification accounts for the majority of social migrations. Social migration also covers people who move for a better quality of life - like expats who move from the UK to Spain for their retirement, or westerners who choose to work abroad to enjoy a different pace of life and find some sunshine!