By James Nicol

Why are some migrants seen as more deserving than others? James Nicol investigates.

Since the re-election of the Coalition government in Australia’s federal elections scarcely more than week ago, a number of reports coming out of Nauru and Manus Island have indicated a significant spike in suicide attempts and incidents of self-harm by asylum seekers and refugees detained on the islands.

Trapped for years in the purgatory of offshore processing and now faced with a government renewed in its determination to keep them from ever reaching Australian soil, at least 12 asylum seekers on Manus Island attempted suicide last week. Similar reports have been filed from Nauru.[i] In conditions of abjection and despair, more than 80% of asylum seekers detained on the islands suffer from mental health issues.[ii] In recent years the United Nations has repeatedly denounced and condemned the Australian government’s offshore detention policy as “unsustainable, inhumane and contrary to its human rights obligations.”[iii]

With this in mind, it is worth noting that just two weeks prior to the Australian election and these reports coming out, The Hill published an article by Christian Whiton, a former State Department senior advisor under both the Trump and George W. Bush administrations, titled ‘Trump should send migrants to Guantanamo’. In the article, Whiton argues for a policy of forced detention on Guantanamo Bay for all migrants claiming asylum within the US who have entered through the southern border.

His rationale for this is based upon the assumption that “almost all” of these migrants are seeking asylum under false pretenses and are, therefore, not true refugees. Rather, they are criminal opportunists who have “cut the long long-line of people waiting legally to immigrate” and should be imprisoned on Guantanamo Bay to serve as deterrents to others who, too, fail to reach the standard of “bona fide refugees deserving asylum.”[iv]

Setting aside the relevant merits, or lack thereof, in such an argument, the article draws our attention to a particularly salient point within the current debate over the treatment of asylum seekers and refugees in the West. Why are certain migrants perceived to be more deserving of acceptance than others? Why are some asylum seekers reflexively seen as “bona fide refugees”, while others are simply “cutting the line”?

The current situation in Europe helps illustrate this issue further. Since 2015, the immense influx of migrants, stemming from crises in the Middle East and North Africa, has had an almost incalculable impact on a number of European countries, sparking increased social tension, mobilising extreme right-wing political parties and policies, and leading to numerous attacks upon asylum centres and the partial closing of Schengen Zone borders.[v] The sheer scale of the crisis has left many European governments and their publics harboring increasingly anti-migrant views.[vi] However, these countries cannot simply abdicate their humanitarian responsibilities under international law by refusing to accept any migrants, asylum seekers, or refugees at all. One way of reconciling these ambivalent views has been the development of a distinction in the public consciousness between “real refugees” and “bogus refugees”, a rationale strikingly similar to that found in Whiton’s argument in The Hill. [vii]

An article published last year by Maykel Verkuyten, Kieran Mepham, and Mathijs Kros of Utrecht University in the journal Ethnic and Racial Studies offers some original insight into how and why these distinctions are being made. The paper ‘Public attitudes towards support for migrants: the importance of perceived voluntary and involuntary migration’ explores how perceived notions of “voluntary” and “involuntary” action in the context of migration affect people’s acceptance and endorsement of migrants and migrant rights.[viii] The terms “voluntary” and “involuntary” essentially refer to the level of self-determination or agency a migrant is viewed as having in deciding to leave his or her home country for another. Moreover, this appears to have a demonstrable effect on how people assess whether a migrant is more or less deserving of acceptance into their country.

The authors show how “voluntary” migrants, or asylum seekers who are perceived to have had a greater degree of agency in their decision to migrate, are labelled “bogus refugees and as economically motivated “fortune seekers” who are “a threat to the county’s hospitality” and “understandable targets of anger and resentment.”[ix] “Involuntary” migrants, on the other hand, who have been forced to seek asylum in a particular country through no want of their own, are more readily seen as “real refugees” who are “deserving of sympathy and support.”[x]

Such distinctions become even more interesting when viewed in conjunction with the earlier findings published in Science by a team of researchers from Stanford University and the London School of Economics. In their 2016 paper, ‘How Economic, Humanitarian, and Religious Concerns Shape European Attitudes towards Asylum Seekers’, Kirk Bansak, Jens Hainmueller, and Dominik Hangartner examined the attitudes of 18,000 Europeans towards accepting asylum seekers based on various demographic, economic, humanitarian and religious attributes. The research identified a number of potential biases of varying strength both for and against asylums seekers of different ages, employment histories, religions and language skills. However, one of the strongest biases uncovered was against asylum seekers who were motivated to improve their economic opportunities.[xi] These “fortune seekers” were 15 percentage points less likely to be accepted than asylum seekers motivated solely by their fear of persecution and who are, again, “deserving of sympathy and support.”[xii]

Such constructions and biases are incredibly troubling, and contribute to what UN Special Rapporteur Nils Melzer has described as a “growing tendency of states to base their official migration policies and practices on deterrence, criminalization and discrimination, rather than protection, human rights and non-discrimination.”[xiii]

With nearly 70 million displaced persons worldwide, including 25 million refugees, and over 3 million asylum seekers waiting for legal decisions on their status – a number only growing by the year as large receiving countries and blocs such as the US and EU reduce the volume of claims being processed and their first-instance protection rates – such capricious distinctions between “real” and “bogus” refugees, are increasingly untenable.[xiv] Research like that being conducted by Verkuyen and Bansak is a vital step in understanding this kind of anti-migrant sentiment. Unless we address how and why these distinctions between migrants are being made, policies of deterrence, criminalisation and discrimination will continue to find sway in the West, and calls for locking up migrants who are not “deserving” of asylum will continue to be made.


[i] Davidson, “More than 40 refugees transferred to Australia for urgent treatment since medevac laws passed”.

[ii] BBC, “Manus Island: Refugee ‘suicide attempts’ in wake of Australia election”.

[iii] Wahlquist, “UN attacks Australia’s ‘inhumane’ refugee-processing system”.

[iv] Whiton, “Trump Should Send Migrants to Guantanamo”.

[v] Bansak, Heinmueller and Hangartner, “How Economic, Humanitarian, and Religious Concerns Shape European Attitudes towards Asylum Seekers”, 217.

[vi] Muggah and Farrah, “Europe faces a “welcoming crisis” when it comes to migrants and refugees. Its not far.”

[vii] Verkuyten, Mepham, and Kros, “Public attitudes towards support for migrants: the importance of perceived voluntary and involuntary migration”, 902.

[viii] Verkuyten, Mepham and Kros, 902.

[ix] Ibid, 901-904.

[x] Ibid, 904.

[xi] Bansak, Heinmueller and Hangartner, 218

[xii] ibid, 218.

[xiii] Human Rights Council, Report of the Special Rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, 18.

[xiv] UNHCR, Figures at a Glance; European Asylum Support Office, “Latest Asylum Trends – 2018 overview”.

James Nicol is a postgraduate student in the Master of Conflict and Terrorism Studies programme within the Department of Politics of International Relations at the University of Auckland.

Disclaimer: The ideas expressed in this article reflect the author’s views and not necessarily the views of The Big Q. 

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