The Plight of Economic Migrants to Europe: A Far Cry from Benefits Tourism

As the EU continues to grapple the logistical aspects of the so-termed ‘European Migrant Crisis,’ a new discussion has arisen about the distinction between migrants and refugees and how each should be treated. Misunderstanding in both public opinion and political policy regarding the differences has dire consequences for the most vulnerable stakeholders — the migrants.

Refugees or Migrants?

Definitions vary, but according to the UN Refugee Agency, an economic migrant is someone who chose to move in order to improve their standard of living, while a refugee is someone who was forced to move because staying in their country threatened their lives and/or freedom (1). Because both economic migrants and refugees are making the same desperate attempts to reach Europe via unsafe boats and other dangerous means of transport, many politicians, news agencies and regular people have lumped them together in their minds. But in terms of what the EU is legally obligated to do to help these people — the distinction matters.

The 1951 Refugee Convention states that Europe has an obligation to protect asylum-seekers who face the threat of war or persecution at home. They are not required to help people who are hoping to improve their prospects, even if the lives they left behind were devoid of many basic human rights (2).

Slowly, the distinction between migrants and refugees has entered international discussion of the migrant crisis, and many news organizations have agreed to stop using the terms interchangeably (3). The BBC is among the stalwarts, insisting on continuing to call the situation a ‘migrant crisis,’ but that hasn’t stopped more than 72,000 people from signing an online petition asking the organization to use the term ‘refugee crisis’ (4).

Public Opinion

While it is important to use proper terminology when reporting the news and even discussing policy decisions, public interest in the distinction can cause some problems. According to Alexander Betts, an Oxford University professor of refugee and forced migration studies, the term ‘migrants’ is a “useful umbrella term that simply describes people who move across borders for a certain period of time. Migrants also have human rights, and they risk being sidelined if the public begins to see refugees as ‘worthy’ and migrants as ‘unworthy’” (3).

This has already happened. Some are referring to the migrants dispersed among the current wave of refugees as ‘benefits tourists,’ presumably under the belief that these people have their eyes set on England with the goal of getting state handouts (5). Few realize that many of the countries these migrants come from are struggling partially due to the long term effects of Western meddling, and even fewer people understand why fleeing poverty might be worth risking your life to reach Europe.

The idea of ‘benefits tourism’ was born after seven Eastern European countries joined the EU in 2004. The UK in particular received a large number of migrants, especially from Poland, who were drawn by the prospect of finding jobs that could pay five times what they would receive for the same work at home (6). The fact that it’s happening again has citizens of the UK and other countries worried that they’ll be overrun by aliens, their economies will suffer, and their social benefits programs won’t be able to handle the influx. Worst of all — terrorists will find a way in (7).

The Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, says the protection of human rights for migrants is a top priority for the organization. “The protection of migrants is an urgent and growing human rights challenge. Governments have obligations to ensure that xenophobic violence, racism and related intolerance against migrants and their communities have no place in their societies” (8).

Misunderstanding by Politicians

Few European governments are paying attention to the fact that xenophobia is not a valid excuse to not help people who desperately need it. The Christian Democratic Union, a German political party that Chancellor Angela Merkel is a part of, said in September that economic migrants were not welcome in the country. A statement from the group said, “Economic distress is no grounds for asylum. We don’t want migration into the social-welfare system” (9).

United Kingdom PM David Cameron has failed to make any distinctions between refugees and migrants, and has referred to people attempting to enter the country illegally as a “swarm” trying to “break in” (10). Hungary has a similar sentiment, recently announcing their plans to arrest illegal migrants trying to cross the country (11). While news organizations appear to be more forgiving of the plight of the migrants than politicians — having reported on the desperate situation for migrants and refugees alike — they still are often referring to refugees as ‘legitimate’ migrants, leaving little wonder to what they think of the rest.

It appears that economic migrants are thought of as a problem if they’re even thought of at all. Hungary’s PM is under the impression that the “overwhelming majority” of people making a bid for Europe are economic migrants, not refugees (2). Slovak PM Robert Fico has a similar opinion, estimating that only about 5% of migrants are refugees. If they took the time to look at the numbers, they would realize how wrong they are.

Migrants are actually small portion of people coming over. Over 80% of them come from the top 10 countries whose citizens can be considered refugees, such as Syria, Afghanistan and Eritrea (3). Germany’s individual statistics show that over 40% of the asylum applications to their country so far this year came from the Balkans (Kosovo, Albania, Serbia and Macedonia), which is why they’ve recently become so concerned with the definition of a ‘safe country of origin’ (12).

Safe Country of Origin

If a country is considered to be a safe country of origin by the EU, then its citizens can’t legitimately apply for asylum in Europe. They recently succeed in adding Serbia to the list (13) and hope Albania and Kosovo are next, arguing that countries working on joining the EU couldn’t be considered unsafe (12). The President of the European Commission appears to agree, proposing in his recent State of the Union speech that the list of safe countries of origin needs to be reevaluated (14).

Actually, the EU already has a clear definition of what constitutes a safe country of origin:

“A country where, on the basis of the legal situation, the application of the law within a democratic system and the general political circumstances, it can be shown that there is generally and consistently no persecution as defined in Article 9 of Directive 2004/83/EC, no torture or inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment and no threat by reason of indiscriminate violence in situations of international or internal armed conflict…” (15).

Under this law, only 23 countries are legally considered to be safe countries of origin (13,16), Morocco being the only one not located in Europe. There is a valid argument that many of these 23 countries don’t live up to the human rights standards outlined the law. Serbia, the newest addition to the list — is probably the least convincing. But now, if any Serbians make the unsafe and arduous journey to Western Europe seeking asylum, they’re very unlikely to receive it. What complicates things more is that each EU country has their own definitions of safe countries of origin in addition to the EU’s master list. As law requires migrants to apply for asylum in the first European country they visit, this can be problematic if they land on the beach of a country that considers them safe back at home (17).

The fact that the list of safe countries of origin is so short should be a good thing, that means it’s possible for any person not from these countries to be evaluated for refugee status. But the European public and governments alike aren’t thinking of it that way. In the beginning of September, the public was outraged to hear that many Iraqis, Afghanis, Palestinians, Libyans and others were trying to pass as Syrians as they traveled to Europe, even purchasing Syrian passports in some cases (18).

While it’s not possible at this time to determine why these people are pretending to be Syrian, it likely has something to do with the fact that the EU has rejected 66% of Iraqis, 73% of Afghanis 72% of Palestinians, and 80% of Libyans who applied for asylum in 2014. The fact that they rejected only 47% of Syrian applicants in the same year is not a number to be proud of, but it still offers much better odds than these migrants would receive if traveling with their own passports (16).

Forgotten Responsibilities

No matter if they come from countries plagued by a war that is minimally publicized, or from a place of insurmountable poverty, the so called ‘economic migrants’ risk their lives to get to Europe, often only to be returned home. Some of them die along the way. Many in the West want to pretend that it’s not their problem, but in reality, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) as well as the World Bank have reduced spending on services across Africa and the Middle East that are meant to help people pull themselves out of poverty (5). The development of so much world debt (again by the West) has reduced the cost of raw materials, only making people poorer.

The former colonial powers seem to also have forgotten the role that history still plays in the lives of people from the countries they left behind. Drusilla Long, who grew up in Ghana under British rule, has an unpopular opinion among Britons, “I believe [we should] return some of the immense wealth we all stole from these countries, such as gold, diamonds, etc, which we have long used to build up our own wealthy ‘fortress’ Europe” (5).

While it’s true that an influx of migrants to the UK has slightly quivered minimum wages down in the past, the consequences have never been as severe as people made them out in their own minds. In fact, migrants have time and again become productive parts of the international community. The diaspora of Armenians, Jews, Ugandan Asians and others are examples of this (7). Still, many fail to see how migrants can serve essential roles in their societies. As countries across Europe develop aging populations with fewer children than generations before, migrants are a viable option to provide services for the elderly and even help pay for their retirement as laborers in the economy.

Even if the EU chooses to hardline the mantra that they just can’t let in everyone, they must not forget their moral obligation to help those who have had their human rights infringed upon. The chosen metric of ‘safe countries of origin’ doesn’t appear to be dynamic enough to grapple with the complex and changing situations of every country in the world. The fact that the EU countries all differ on what they consider to be a safe country of origin is proof that the metric is flawed. France, for example, still considers Mali to be a safe country of origin for men despite a 2012 coup d’état (17).

The hard pill to swallow is that human rights abuses may happen at a national level, but they happen at an individual level too, even for some citizens of the UK, France, Germany, and other major players in the region. The time has ended for calling some people migrants and others refugees without knowing anything about their personal stories. Migrants are people, not problems.

[toggle title=”References” state=”open”]

1. UNHCR ‘Who We Help: Refugees.’ (The UN Refugee Agency)
2. The Economist Explains (7 September 2015), ‘How Many Migrants to Europe are Refugees?’ (The Economist)
3. Westcott, Lucy (11 September 2015), ‘Refugees vs. Migrants: What’s the Right Term to Use?’ (Newsweek)
4. Zygkostiotis, Zinon ‘Request BBC Use the Correct Term Refugee Crisis Instead of Migrant Crisis.’ (
5. Alibhai Brown, Yasmin (24 May 2015), ‘Don’t Blame Migrants — The West Helped Create Their Plight. (The Independent)–the-west-helped-to-create-their-plight-10273545.html
6. BBC Geography, ‘Economic Migration.’ (BBC)
7. From the Print Edition (12 September 2015), ‘Exodus.’ (The Economist)
8. Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, ‘Migration and Human Rights.’ (United Nations)
9. Tomkiw, Lydia (2 September 2015), ‘Europe Refugee Crisis Update: Economic Migrants Not Welcome, Angela Merkel German Christian Democratic Caucus Says.’ (International Business Times)
10. Khomami, Nadia (15 August 2015), ‘David Cameron Says Migrants Trying to ‘Break In’ to UK Illegally.’ (The Guardian)
11. BBC News (11 September 2015), ‘Europe Migrant Crisis: Hungary ‘Will Arrest Illegal Migrants.’ (BBC News)
12. Erlanger, Steven (2 September 2015), ‘Migrant Crisis Gives Germany Familiar Role in Another European Drama.’ (The New York Times)
13. Germany (7 September 2015), ‘Serbia is a Safe Country of Origin.’ (The Federal Government of Germany)
14. Barbière, Cécile (10 September 2015), ‘Juncker Defies EU Countries With Distribution Plan for 160,000 Refugees.’ (
15. EDAL ‘Safe Country of Origin.’ (European Database of Asylum Law)
16. European Council (26, June 2015), ‘Information Note on the Follow-Up to the European Council Conclusions of 26 June 2015 on Safe Countries of Origin.’ (European Council)
17. ECRE ‘Safe Countries of Origin: An Inconvenient Truth.’ (European Council on Refugees and Exiles)
18. Mesco, Manuela, Matt Bradley and Giovanni Legorano (12 September 2015), ‘Migrants Pose as Syrians to Open Door to Asylum in Europe.’ (The Wall Street Journal)


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