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Methods in Motion 25: Tendayi Bloom - Terminology and Rethinking ‘Noncitizenship’

2 June 2017
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Refugee? Migrant? Asylum seeker? Lecturer in Politics & International Studies Tendayi Bloom explores how terminology affects our view of reality.

In this blogpost, I’ll consider the interaction between terminology and the changing roles of the words we use when talking about human mobility.

Some of these words are defined legally: a stateless person, for example, is someone not recognised as a citizen by any state under the operation of its law, whereas a refugee is someone who is outside her or his country of citizenship or habitual residence because of a well-founded fear of persecution.

Other words, however, are defined more informally: a migrant is someone who has moved from one place to another, usually (but not necessarily) crossing an international border. An asylum seeker is seeking protective status. Someone might be considered to be an irregular migrant for a range of reasons. She or he may have moved or be working without the required paperwork, or be living in a country after her or his visa has elapsed, for example. These definitions refer to how individuals relate to states.

Based on the above, refugees are migrants, but not all migrants are refugees. Some stateless persons are also refugees, but not all. And not all refugees are stateless persons. Some asylum seekers may be irregular migrants, but not all, and if stateless persons move, they may have to do so irregularly.

Yet, individuals across these categorisations may well share some similarly-based deficits of rights. And all these terms have been used to identify whether individuals have legal claims to rights and protections, and to frame them as deserving or undeserving, victims or villains.

Much work has been done to separate discourse about refugees from discourse about migrants. The most famous example of this is probably that of Erika Feller, former UNHCR Assistant High Commissioner for Protection, who warned conflating the categories risked undermining the humanitarian nature of refugee claims. As a result, she and others argued that refugees should be seen only as refugees, not also as migrants.

However, there is a growing sense that this approach is inadequate. There has been a move towards acknowledging the intersections between the many reasons people move and the needs and claims to which this gives rise, as well as their wider shared experiences. Refugees, then, may also be workers, activists and entrepreneurs; migrants who are not refugees may still be vulnerable and their movement unfree; while those moving urgently may also have to move irregularly. In addition, people can be displaced without moving at all.

While this should not undermine existing mechanisms through which vulnerable individuals can access systems of protection, recognising the complexity can help us to look beyond the need for them to prove that they meet certain definitions in order to access these systems – particularly when these are associated with basic rights.

Interest in statelessness has been increasing. Those advocating for the rights of stateless persons are careful to distinguish their claims from those associated with migration and refugee status. Statelessness is not about movement. And yet, in the deprivations experienced by stateless persons (who have been referred to as ‘displaced in situ’), it is possible to uncover continuities across the ways of relating to states.

Individuals who are stateless, who are migrants, who are refugees, may all face displacement from existing state structures by the assumption that it is necessary to prove a certain status in order to access what are thought of as human rights within (or in relation to) those states.

It is partially to address this that I have proposed the terminology of unhyphenatednoncitizenship’. This is an analytical category and a way of understanding an individual-state relationship that is not derivative from citizenship, but complementary to it. While there are additional humanitarian or other claims associated with some groups of noncitizens, I suggest that there are also over-arching claims that noncitizens have against states in virtue of their noncitizenship.

Terminology, and the categorisations associated with it, can affect how we are able to imagine reality. They also affect how, in the real world, people are able to access rights and social structures. It is crucial continually to interrogate how language is used in this area, to examine how it is affecting our understanding, and how it frames our knowledge about complex realities. And yet this must be done with care, within a context where the same language is used legally, politically and socially to deny or provide access for individuals to legal protections and political and social spaces.


Tendayi Bloom is a Lecturer in Politics & International Studies. This post draws upon her work in two forthcoming books: Noncitizenism: Recognising Noncitizen Capabilities in a World of Citizens and Understanding Statelessness (the latter edited by Tendayi, Katherine Tonkiss and Phillip Cole). She tweets from @TendayiB.