Should we start referring to refugees as migrants?

There are 247 million migrants in the world, but at what point does a migrant become a refugee, an economic migrant, or an expatriate?

Yara al-Wazir

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There are 247 million migrants in the world, but at what point does a migrant become a refugee, an economic migrant, or an expatriate? More importantly, should the world speed up the process of turning refugees to migrants in order to improve the global economy?

Interpreting McKinsey’s latest report on global migration, and considering a UNHCR statistic that refugees will remain in exile for an average of 17 years of their life, perhaps that’s what the world should be doing toe alleviate the stigmas associated with the refugee crisis. It is time to stop treating the issue as a temporary situation and think of it as a long-term issue, hence the need to adapt the terminology. As the world marks World Migrant Day, this issue has never been more of a hot topic than it is today.

What do migrants actually do for the economy?

The McKinsey report highlights that 90 percent of the world’s migrants have moved voluntarily, while the remaining 10 percent are classified as refugees, that is those who have been forcibly removed from their countries. In hindsight when considering the argument that “refugees are exploiting the system,” they are merely participants in an economic system that has been around for decades, and that has been taken advantage of for just as long. Even more so, migration is a key part of our interconnected world that creates increasing opportunities. Migrants contribute roughly $6.7 trillion, which equates to 9.4 percent of the global GDP in 2015. This figure is $3 trillion greater than what they would have produced in their countries of origin. Academic evidence highlights that immigration does not harm native employment or wages in the long term. It seems that the economy is far smarter than the humans that built it at integrating and adapting to the influx of refugees and migrants. The report also highlighted is that migrants of all skill levels produce a net positive economic contribution through various means, including innovation, entrepreneurship, or freeing up natives for higher-value work.

For decades, refugees-turned-migrants have provided services to government, public policy, education and healthcare systems around the world

Yara al-Wazir

Refugees represent an acute version of migrants – their immediate needs for housing, shelter and healthcare outweigh the immediate contributions that they are able to make to their host country. However, with time and assuming that the immediate needs of refugees are met, the host countries will begin to see the benefit of an influx of the young population, namely with their monetary contributions through tax to the system. The generation of baby-boomers is coming close to retirement and with that comes the need of the population to contribute to the system that takes care of them.

Developed world can benefit from migration’s brain-drain effect

For decades, refugees turned migrants have provided services to government, public policy, education and healthcare systems around the world. A detailed essay by Sultan al-Qassemi for Medium highlights the positive impact that dozens of Palestinians have brought to the UAE. Many of the Palestinians featured in the piece moved to the UAE after the Nakba of 1948. The piece highlights what refugees and migrants can do when they are provided with opportunities to give back to their host countries. If we look back 40 years ago, were these people once referred to as refugees? The process of transforming them from “refugees” to “migrants” and eventually to “citizens” of their host countries was not quick, but it was doable. What the UAE has benefited from is the concept of a brain drain. It is true that at any given point, these refugees could have continued to fight to return to their own country, and they may have succeeded and built a life elsewhere. By not doing so, however, they were able to help shape the transformation of the UAE in to one of the strongest nations in the region.

The call for opportunities, integration and support for refugee communities happens as often as there is a call to prayer in Muslim countries. It’s time to stop calling and actually head to the institutions that are able to deliver. Realizing the impact of migration, both in a historical context and the opportunities it creates in the future is key to overcoming the crisis at hand.


Yara al Wazir is a humanitarian activist. She is the founder of The Green Initiative ME and a developing partner of Sharek Stories. She can be followed and contacted on twitter @YaraWazir


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