BIG COUNTRIES AND SMALL COUNTRIES: HISTORY, INTERNATIONAL LAW, AND CHINA’S CLAIMS ON THE SOUTH CHINA SEA

Patrick Swire

On the 12th of July 2016, a Hague tribunal ruled in favour of the Philippines over a complaint regarding China’s claims to territorial sovereignty over 80% of the South China Sea, as demarcated by the so-called “nine-dash line.” Stating that ‘there was no evidence that China had historically exercised exclusive control over the waters or their resources,’ the tribunal asserted that attempts to exert such control ‘had no legal basis.’ Within hours, this ruling had created a global media storm. Xinhua and the People’s Daily, mouthpieces of the Chinese government, declared that it had “trampled” on international law and norms in contradiction of “basic truths,” whilst Western media outlets assumed a predictable tone of veiled mockery; chiding China’s inadequate comprehension of the letter and spirit of international conventions, and the absurdity of the historical reasoning behind its claims.

This condescension essentially misses the contextual implications hidden within the furious bluster of Chinese state pronouncements on the issue. The ‘historical rights’ that are invoked by the CCP as official basis for its claims of absolute sovereignty over the region, and which are so frequently ridiculed by the foreign press, are only designed to carry weight at a domestic level; the hollowness of these claims in terms of international law is intended to express disdain for that very institution, and the unequal and anachronistic world order that it underpins. This dissenting position reflects China’s desire to disrupt and destabilise the systematic restraints that prevent it from gaining geopolitical standing commensurate with its vision of itself as a newly ‘powerful nation’ (qiangguo).

The precise justifications for the Chinese state’s claims over the South China Sea range from the logically dubious to the downright bizarre. The key articulation of these aspirations is the much touted ‘nine-dash line’, which was first drawn up by the Nationalist government of Republican China in 1947. Reportedly arising from Chiang Kaishek’s fascination with Hitler’s taste for lebensraum, the line (initially eleven dashes long), originally stood as a loose articulation of the claims of the Chinese state over the region after the hegemonic grip of the Japanese Empire collapsed. The South China Sea is host to vast fisheries and oil reserves, and sees over 30% of global maritime trade pass through it, with a value to the tune of $5.3 trillion. These claims have naturally not gone uncontested. The Republic of China (Taiwan) echoes its founder’s ambitions to the entire region, while Brunei, Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines and Vietnam all view particular regions within the line as their sovereign territory - generally as defined by the Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZ) stipulated by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).

China’s claims over the region can be divided into three main categories: sovereignty over the islands within the line; the corresponding rights and jurisdiction over water as defined by UNCLOS; and exclusive “historic rights” over fishing, navigation and resource development of the entire region. China has sought to shore up the first of these two claims by occupying disputed features and ‘modifying’ them in order to turn them from ‘rocks,’ which do not qualify for EEZ status, into habitable ‘islands,’ which do. Subsequently, attempts have been made by China to legitimise these claims within the legal framework of UNCLOS. By contrast, no formal clarification has been put forward with regard to the exact basis upon which ‘historic rights’ to sovereignty have been asserted, which the Chinese government maintains has existed ‘continuously, peacefully and effectively’ since ‘ancient times’. Scholarly and popular justifications for this range from pottery shard finds and navigational handbooks to the mythical adventures of 4th century itinerant monks. Regardless, historic rights as justifications for sovereignty are almost without exception invalid under UNCLOS, which was in part designed to resolve the ambiguities arising from such claims.

The lines of reasoning employed by China in staking these claims appear at best insincere and at worst simply facetious. Arriving at contested features and occupying them by any means necessary, dumping sand on them to give the impression of habitability, and then claiming that they and the adjacent waters have always been ‘Chinese’ with vague gesticulations towards ‘history’, do not represent sincere attempts to play by the rules of international law. They are in fact expressions of contempt for this very system, rendering almost laughable The Hague’s conclusion that ‘the root of the disputes lie in different understandings of… respective rights under the Convention,’ and its hope that the clarification of these rights would lead to their resolution.

What, then, is the source of this recalcitrance? Not, as it might at first seem, a dissenting view of one particular strut of international law, but rather a dissenting view of the very edifice itself. Whereas the officially stated purpose of the international legal system is to preserve peace and stability via the observation of clearly demarcated regulations, the Chinese government (along with various other post-colonial states) views it as a preservative for a world order built by force, in which Japan and the West elevated themselves to a position of superiority via strength of arms, and to this martial superiority added that of the moral kind as a further bulwark to their position. To China the international community does not appear as a fraternity of nations, but rather an anachronistic muddle of competing states seeking to gain and preserve advantage over others by any means necessary.

Jia Qinguo, of Peking University’s School of International Studies, suggests in fact that China’s attitude towards South China Sea is not one of dissent, but rather one of compliance with international norms. “The United States has Guam in Asia which is very far away from the U.S. and the French have islands in the South Pacific, so it is nothing new.” The fact that these geopolitical privileges were gained in what is generally considered ‘a different era’ by most of the West is of little consolation to China; a nation that was in no position to gain such privileges for itself at that particular time – a fact that the Chinese people, thanks to the narrative of ‘a century of national humiliation’, are frequently reminded of. According to this narrative, China’s entry into the international system – beginning with the Opium War debacle in 1839 – came at a time when China had been brought low by a series of domestic crises. Over the next century, predatory foreign forces exploited this continuing weakness, to the effect that China was unable to stake any real claim in the post-War international order. Over the course of the Cold War, the US policy of ‘containment’ compounded this, and the legacy of this state of affairs – chiefly the ‘steel circle’ of American military bases dotted along rim of the South China Sea – continues to this day to prevent China from reaching its full ‘potential’. This ‘potential’ essentially reduces to regional hegemony and great-power status, arising as the natural consequence of China’s latent economic, territorial – and in the eyes of some, cultural – strength and superiority. The institutions of international law are viewed as the tools by which China’s historic enemies seek to prevent it from actualizing this state of affairs.

The ‘historic rights’ that China asserts, therefore, do not in truth relate to lonely spikes of sand dotted throughout its neighbouring waters. Rather, they refer to the discrepancy between China’s actual economic, political, cultural and territorial status on the international stage, and that to which China perceives itself to be entitled – a discrepancy concretised and represented by the present international order. Since Deng Xiaoping’s renunciation of Communism in the 1980s, the Party’s key legitimating narratives have relied chiefly upon a form of developmental nationalism. This has been articulated specifically in terms of its ability to make China ‘strong and wealthy’ (fuqiang); an ambition dating back to mid-19th century, when China was ravaged by the forces of Western and Japanese imperialism. Vital to fulfilling this promise is the robust defence of China’s interests on the international stage, the elevation of its position to one commensurate with its newfound economic clout, and the corresponding rectification of perceived historical slights and deprivations. The Party will not neglect these duties lest it should become target to accusations of ‘selling out the nation’ (maiguo) – accusations that were levelled against numerous of its predecessors, with devastating and terminal effect. In the meantime, it seems likely that the world will have to deal with the reality of an expansionist and ambitious China, and the disruption of the status quo that this will entail. In the words of China’s former foreign minister, Yang Jiechi, ‘China is a big country, and other countries are small countries, and that’s just a fact.’

A Bed Time Story for Putin

VERITY BLIGH

Vladimir Putin was likely told the bedtime story of Baba Yaga as a child growing up in 1960s Leningrad. As a wizened old hag, who flies a floating mortar using its pestle, habitually kidnapping, then eating, misbehaved children, Baba Yaga cuts a terrifying figure in Slavic folklore. But why such speculation about Putin’s childhood? Ultimately, regardless of whether or not young Vladimir was interested in flying mortars and pestles, such myths provide important insights into Russian cultural expectations and societal identity. In the case of the Baba Yaga folktale, it contains a powerful lesson about dissent: break the rules and you will pay the price, a lesson that continues to be widely reflected in Russia’s political system today. Such an analogy is particularly relevant to Putin’s manipulation of the status quo to cement his personal rule, and the increasing resistance from dissidents in response.

 

Here, two important points can be drawn regarding the dynamics between the Kremlin and political opposition in the modern Russian state. Firstly, narratives matter. A nation’s shared mythologies strongly define individuals’ social prospects and aspirations. Where power is associated with fear, this serves as a strong deterrent to the rebellion of the masses, as well as a ready-made toolkit for autocrats. Secondly, such narratives endure when they are backed up by political ritual. Here, actors use such repeated and symbolic practices to direct attention towards ideas and behaviours that legitimise their power, which in turn may provoke resistance. In this way, rituals draw a red line between dissent and deference.

 

Yet these two lessons can be co-opted by either government or opposition for their own political self-interest. This fact is particularly clear in the upcoming Russian elections in March 2018: the question is not whether Putin will win, but rather with which narrative and rituals he will package his next presidential term, and in turn, how Alexei Navalny, a long-term dissident, will frame his opposition movement. For dissent operates as a discourse between establishment and resistance, rather than a dichotomy. Ultimately, each needs the other to define itself. In this way, the true value of dissent in Putin’s Russia does not lie in its capacity for electoral breakthrough, but in its role to reveal the Kremlin’s weaknesses and thereby change the behaviour of those in office.

 

Since 2000, each of Putin’s presidential terms has been bolstered by a different narrative. According to Joshua Yaffa, Moscow correspondent for The New Yorker, his first term centred on restoring state authority in the wake of the Chechen War and on bringing a basic sense of order and competency to government administration in contrast to his predecessor Yeltsin’s deep unpopularity. His second term, from 2004 to 2008, was focussed on the redistribution of the country’s windfall oil and gas profits, fuelling a consumer boom and effectively buying the population’s political disengagement. Following a faux withdrawal from power as Prime Minister under Medvedev, Putin’s regime since 2012 has become defined by Russia’s stand-off with the West, played out in Ukraine, Syria and the cyber-space. Such nationalism, emphasising Russia’s self-image as a great power and influential player on the world stage, is essentially a diversion from a present-day reality of stagnating economic growth and tightening political freedoms.

 

The real issue at stake here is what comes next. With elections only a few months away, it is key to understand what bargain Putin wants to make with the Russian people in his fourth, and presumably last, term. Increasingly, Putin is behaving as a “new tsar”, as stated in The Economist in its appraisal of the centenary anniversary of the 1917 October Revolution. Proving that narratives still matter, his presidency evokes Russia’s imperial history to shore up an authoritarian system based on his personal rule. However, the legitimacy of a tsar requires constant reaffirmation. Here, political rituals, in the form of national approval ratings, state television appearances and military war-games, highlight the Kremlin’s patronage over the economy, media and security forces. Most importantly, the point of the upcoming election is not to provide an alternative to Putin, but to prove that there is none. “If there is no Putin, there is no Russia”, the Kremlin’s Deputy of Staff recently claimed, neatly encapsulating the present political atmosphere. Ironically, therefore, the stronger Putin is today, the harder he will find it to continue to consolidate his rule, and eventually choose a successor, in future.

 

This weakness provides a valuable opening for dissidents to stake their claims over important issues in Russian politics. Such opposition groups emerge from all spheres of life, including popular culture (Pussy Riot, repressed since 2011), journalism (Anna Politkovskaya, poisoned in 2006) and politics, most notably Alexei Navalny. Following the “colour revolutions” of the early 2000s, in which former Soviet Union and Balkans countries protested against their Russian-backed autocratic leaders, Navalny emerged as the key opposition figure to Putin’s United Russia party, which he popularly termed “the party of crooks and thieves”. In stark contrast to the current gerontocratic oligarchs, he is a young tech-savvy liberal, thus offering not only a change in personality at the top of the Kremlin, but also a fundamentally different political order in a modern Russian state. For “Putin’s generation”, those under twenty-five who have no significant memories of any other Russian leader, this is an unprecedented alternative.

 

Navalny uses a wide repertoire of dissident tactics to erode the Kremlin’s legitimacy. In addition to traditional protest marches, his Progress Party harnesses social media through memes, including one of Navalny’s bright green face after a chemical attack, and satire, such as analogising Putin to a ‘turnip’: “If the only thing you have been fed all your life is a turnip, you are likely to rate it as highly edible”. This grass-roots approach challenges prevailing top-down narratives and rituals, thus undermining traditional spin-doctoring, which is euphemistically known as “political technology” in post-Soviet states. Yet such opposition comes at a massive personal cost. Navalny has been arrested many times since 2012, and is currently banned from running in the presidential election on trumped-up charges of tax fraud. Moreover, it is unclear where the breaking-point in Putin’s regime lies, if there is one at all.

 

Nevertheless, dissidents hold the competitive advantage in the long-term. Putin’s tsarist master-plan is a widely known strategy, against which opposition figures can mobilise against in rapid, adaptive, and often unpredictable ways. For that reason, dissent is valuable because it empowers individual actors with the leverage to change the narrative and political rituals of far more powerful forces. Just as young children invariably run the risk of kidnap by Baba Yaga by pursuing their independence, dissidents challenge political regimes for values of democracy, pluralism and free expression. Ultimately, rules exist to be broken – and the price is worth paying.

LETHAL AUTONOMOUS WEAPONS: THE START OF AN INTERNATIONAL ARMS RACE?

EMILY TENCH

Lethal autonomous weapons are weapons which select and engage targets without human intervention. On July 28th 2017, 116 experts submitted an open letter calling for a ban on such weapons. They argued that such a ban is necessary to prevent a global artificial intelligence (AI) arms race, which would pose a significant threat to humanity. It seems that such a race is already starting with Vladimir Putin recently stating “Artificial intelligence is the future, not only for Russia but for all humankind. Whoever becomes the leader in this sphere will become the ruler of the world.”

China and the USA are also in agreement that artificial intelligence will be the key technology underpinning national power in the future. In July, China’s State Council released a strategic plan to make the country “the front-runner and global innovation centre in AI” by 2030.  Although the US does not have such a prescriptive plan, it is likewise investing heavily in AI development and in April, the Department of Defense established the Algorithmic Warfare Cross-Functional Team, designed to improve use of AI technologies across the Pentagon.

The start of a potential arms race is highly concerning since it may lead countries to develop artificial intelligence without adequate thought for safety. One of the biggest problems associated with AI is the value alignment problem, which is the question of how to ensure that the instructions we give to an AI system capture what we want it to do without any unintended outcomes. Stuart Russell compares this to the story of King Midas. When King Midas asked for everything he touched to turn to gold, he wanted to be rich and did not want his food and family to turn into gold. His instructions resulted in catastrophic unintended outcomes. If AI systems are developed without a proper focus on value alignment, the unintended outcomes could be species-ending. A secondary concern is that without adequate safety procedures and regulation, AI weapons could more easily fall into the hands of terrorists, dictators or others who would use them for malicious purposes.

It is vital that we avoid the escalation of the AI arms race. The long-term goal for international leaders such as the UN should be the creation of a Lethal Autonomous Weapons Convention, analogous to the Chemical Weapons Convention or the Nuclear Non Proliferation Treaty. This convention should prohibit the use, development, production, stockpiling and transfer of lethal autonomous weapons. At present, however, verification of such a treaty would be difficult since the differences between a weaponised system and a weaponised autonomous system are very small. Therefore, funding into further research is required urgently. The global AI arms race has already begun and the deployment of lethal autonomous weapons will be feasible within years, not decades.

"GRAVE NEW WORLD" - A REVIEW

LUCA WOLLNY

In a clear challenge to the Neoliberal globalist consensus, Stephen D. King argues globalism to be an incredibly fragile state of affairs, and shows how recent anti-globalisation trends are part of a long-term systemic threat to international consensus.

Positing the post-war wave of globalisation to be neither inevitable nor irreversible, King’s provocative book Grave New World ultimately produces convincing geopolitical, economic, and sociological critiques of the orthodox neoliberal perspective on globalisation. He places the most recent wave of globalisation in historical context, showing it not to be a trend so much as part of a cycle, before retreading familiar ground with the tension between nation-states and globalisation. These two forces, he argues, will face tension clustered around three key challenges: migration, technology, and money. In the final part of his work, King attempts to offer solutions to the coming challenges facing globalisation.

King’s work relies on six main claims: international economic ‘progress’ is not inevitable and can run in reverse;  technology can both promote and dismantle globalisation;  economic development, which increases global living standards but deepens domestic inequality, will naturally pit global and national interests against each other;  huge migration flows in the 21st century will undermine attempts at domestic stability;  international institutions are losing credibility, and the divergence between nations’ goals mean new international institutions are very unlikely; and  the preponderance of ‘superpowers’ and their disagreements over how globalisation ought to be conducted will lead to the return of an 1800s style Imperial model. Structurally, however, the book is divided into four parts, of varying quality and credibility.

The first part is an attempt to place globalisation in a historic (and cyclic) context, and forms most of the argument for the first claim. King attempts to demonstrate how, in the immediate post-war period, circumstances allowed for globalisation to be in the national interests of most parties. For the most part, he rests this claim on two factors: the destruction caused by the second world war; and the rise of the cold war. Given the two, there was a strong incentive for the US to invest energy and resources into the creation of a strongly integrated international order, and, given the level of bankruptcy and destruction in most other industrialised nations at this time, strong incentive for them to play ball with the US’s policy. Thus, many of the international institutions we know today were strengthened, since all parties (apart from Moscow) had incentives to cooperate. Post-cold war, King argues, these factors were less pressing, and the natural fractures in the system were held together less tightly.

In an unexpected twist, Minsky’s model – out of favour with the wider economic establishment – is offered as an explanation for how the great moderation placed additional strain on this co-operative system. It argues that as confidence in economic stability goes up, risky and foolish lending and investment will occur, until a bubble appears. This bubble must then pop, causing great economic damage – but clearing the system of inflated value – and restoring the economy to a stable level. Applied to the great moderation, King essentially argues that the lack of economic turmoil simply meant that a bubble (which to this day has not popped) was being formed in the world economy.

In the next part, King outlines his theory for the inherent long-term tension between national states and globalisation. Essentially, he argues that within any given market, trade is of infinite gain, since it increases the overall productivity of the market. This increased production, however, is often grossly unequal, and wealth will tend to congregate. Within a single market, redistribution can be affected, remedying any social concerns and allowing the benefits of blocwide trade to continue. King illustrates this by reference to the British- and French-backed international markets of earlier centuries. Between countries in the modern system, however, redistribution is not possible, since it will almost never be possible to force more prosperous nations to yield redistribution to other nations. He argues that this is exacerbated by the creation of a global elite, in whose interests it is to prevent redistribution. Just to hammer the point home, King then provides a quick interpretation of the various competing views of ‘the international community’, arguing that each is very likely to come to resemble something akin to an 1800s ‘sphere of influence’.

 Three key threats to globalisation in the 21st century are analysed in part three. The first, migration, he rationalises thus: when the benefits of migration outweigh the costs of migration, many will migrate. Given that King considers globalisation to worsen inequality, the benefits of migration will only continue to grow in relation to the costs. As a more concrete example, he points to Africa and Europe; as the population of the one continent grows (which increases in healthcare and high fertility rates are, he posits, likely to cause), its citizens, increasingly able to travel, will in ever larger numbers realise there are better wages etc. to be had in wealthy Europe (a phenomenon unlikely to be lessened by Europe’s aging workforce).

The second threat comes from technology; while King posits several methods, the most familiar ought to be the idea of the ‘echo chamber’ – that is, technology may, rather than spreading bonds around the world, simply give people new ways to debase and insulate themselves. Perhaps King’s most convincing evidence comes from an analysis of the viewing numbers of early BBC programming, where the Open University broadcasts paled compared to the viewing numbers for The Black and White Minstrel Show (which, for those unfamiliar with British media history, was a staggeringly racist programme).

Lastly, King argues that the recent tendency towards monetary policy to tame economic crises indicates a dangerous trend towards countries trying to foist off deflation to each other, and that we face ‘currency wars’. As any student of Macroeconomics will be aware, a country can have any two of free capital flows, stable inflation, and stable exchange rates. The last of these is what promotes currency wars; the first is financial globalisation, and stable inflation is general in the national interest. Thus, King argues, without sacrificing financial globalisation at the first hurdle (and given that sacrificing the national interest is incredibly unlikely), we are faced with the prospect of a divisive monetary competition. Furthermore, he points to Japan’s 80s pain after the Plaza accords as a prime example of how even well-motivated attempts to co-ordinate monetary policy cannot end well. 

Given, then, the litany of challenges King brings to globalisation, we ought not to be surprised that the single chapter comprising part four contains only three comparatively weak solutions for the situation. Among some astute criticisms of Varoufakis’, Stiglitz’ and Rodrik’s various solutions, King outlines the most plausible routes as: the reinstatement of fully floating currencies (and thus the breakup of the Euro and the abandonment of insulation against hot money); the creation of a binding, and financially muscular, international arbitration body to resolve credit disputes between nations; and complete sovereign globalisation, at least to the degree of the Pax Britannia/Americana.

These solutions, however, all suffer from glaring weaknesses. To adopt the first, the world would need to accept a de facto abandonment of globalisation – which is no solution at all – and to accept the second two, it would need to further abandon nation sovereignty. This will not happen any time soon. King’s better suggestions go boldly against the spirit of the times, emphasising the extent to which globalisation is under threat. These policies are very unlikely to occur, and even more unlikely to actually work. Arbitration would likely just increase the scale of financial issues, and the difficulty of redistribution on a global scale is self-evident. In fairness to King, his tepid endorsement of these solutions indicates some awareness of these failings, and he comes within a hair’s breadth of openly acknowledging that if his core thesis is correct, the most likely outcome is the creation of competing economic spheres and the end of liberal globalisation.

Despite the ultimate weaknesses of his conclusion, King provides a comprehensive (and economically meaty) analysis of the key challenges to liberal globalisation. As an inadvertent part of a newer wave of neo-realism, King captures the zeitgeist of the shift away from the Fukuyamaeqsue endorsements of neoliberalism that had come to dominate the IR debate. Indeed, as an overview of the key systemic threats to the current global order, King’s book serves as a welcome introduction, and contains enough economic analysis to force this reviewer to engage in early macro revision. Thus, while his book occasionally suffers from trying to pull its punches somewhat, it serves as a welcome grounding in the basics of how a geopolitical approach might systemically appear, given the modern order.

 

CARELESS TALK COSTS LIVES

BENJAMIN DAVIES

It is hard to overstate the case for the movement of people being the world’s biggest event for generations. It preceded, was implicated in, and is likely to outlast, most other contenders, including regional or civil wars, and shock elections or referendums. Even the biggest potential challenger for impactful-world-event, the escalation of threat in the Korean peninsula, has remained irresolvable because, among other things, of a desire to avoid a flow over the North Korean/Chinese border. The long term trend for global displacement is decidedly upwards, with a group of 65.6 million people (the size of the UK population) now ‘forcibly displaced’, and new crises, such as that between Myanmar and Bangladesh, emerging constantly.

 

However available the statistics, we seem condemned to imprecision when talking about people on the move - a phenomenon which may be called an uncertainty principle of sorts, since it is the momentum, the constant coming and going, which makes things hard to measure (and numbers may be underestimated because some, for various reasons, “opt out of the system” and don’t register as refugees.) For starters, 65.6 million is not all people moving worldwide (it is only those moving, the UNHCR say, ‘as a result of persecution, conflict, violence, or human rights violations’), and neither are they all moving across national borders - 40.3 million of them are displaced within their own countries.

 

But it is also in vocabulary that we are at risk of being imprecise. It is hard to write this article without eventually collocating “migrant” and “crisis”. It seems like a reasonable pairing, since moving people are migrating, and the responses of most host nations has been inadequate (for many reasons - some don’t have the resources, others have the resources but choose restrictive policies.) But media discussion overburdens this problematic phrase. While most discourse discusses the localised issue of people moving into Europe (mostly through Spain, Italy and Greece), it remains that the majority of people on the move and in need of help are not in or moving towards Europe. The host countries with the most displaced people, relative to both population and GDP, are mostly African or Middle Eastern - not a fact often acknowledged in British media.

 

If we isolate the European example, however, we find the inadequacy is not only in solutions, but yet again in how we talk about moving people. The term “mixed migration” addresses the fact that a stream contains people moving for various reasons: hostile political climate, general war and mass direct violence (Syria and Myanmar), improvement of work, environmental disaster (Yemen) or people being moved against their will (prominent examples include trafficked people from Vietnam or Nigeria). Nonetheless, media reports and government representatives rarely acknowledge the complexity of such streams, preferring to stick to a dichotomy of “migrant” and “refugee” as the two available types of moving person.

 

Dr Nicholas Van Hear of Oxford’s Centre on Migration, Policy, and Society (COMPAS) says that policy regimes ‘tend to see migrants in terms of a sole motivation to migrate’, and that is certainly a driving idea behind the “migrant”/“refugee” dichotomy: that the former moves through choice, the latter because of force. Bound up in these terms are also, I argue, sets of assumptions about need. It is commonly assumed that a migrant is in possession of at least some capital (financial, instructional, or social), and that a refugee is essentially resourceless and helpless. We can see these assumptions working their way into charity appeals and government conversations about migrants and refugees: the idea that states should be helping those who have nothing, and should be suspicious of those who have the ability to, for example, enter employment

 

A simple search on the Daily Mail, The Sun and Daily Mirror websites shows that their articles tend to use the terms “migrant” and “refugee” interchangeably. In the case of the Mail, the headlines using the word “migrant” tend to focus on arrivals into Europe, whereas headlines about “refugees” address the Americas or those displaced between Middle Eastern countries. In other words, you’re a refugee, deserving of pity, until you actually arrive on European shores, at which point you’re a migrant. This is not a press sympathetic to researcher Jorgen Carling’s view that: ‘Refugees are migrants, too. And all migrants matter.’ Current government leaders tend not to worry about being too discerning between the terms either, or where they do, such as in Labour’s 2017 manifesto, they perpetuate an unhelpful fuzziness of priorities, and argue largely only in favour of assisting refugees.

 

The problem with the way we talk about this dichotomy is that it converts the state of a moving person at their origin directly into an assumed set of needs. As a hypothetical example, somebody may leave a war-torn country with few physical possessions or cash, but with good education or specialised vocational training, and good language skills. They are in need not of reeducation, but of financial assistance. Somebody else may leave a stable, poor country with full suitcases and ready finance, but be young and untrained, and unable to speak any foreign languages. The former would mostly be viewed a refugee, the latter a migrant, and although these are useful terms in that we may wish to explicate differences between these two types of moving person, they have picked up deeply unhelpful associations. People have different sets of needs which do not necessarily match our assumptions.

 

This debate is being held in the open at the UNHCR, and between NGOs and academia. Even at the same time that the UNHCR website states that ‘[m]igrants are fundamentally different from refugees’, Peter Sutherland of the UN General Assembly says in a 2017 report that there is not a ‘clear-cut’ difference between ‘those who flee literally at gunpoint and those whose movement is entirely voluntary’. In the same paragraph, Sutherland makes what I think is the most cogent summary of the situation: there is, he says, a ‘need to overcome the facile binary approach that treats refugees as “good” … and irregular migrants as “bad”’. It is something of a “four legs good, two legs bad” viewpoint - those arriving on all fours, bereft of all energy, are most deserving of help. Those who can stand by themselves should be left to it.

 

These NGO-based or academic discussions have regrettably little impact on governmental discourse or policy. Politicians and parties continue to be inarticulate on the matter - at the highest level, they are caught up in a furious media cycle, in which, particularly of late, there is a high burn rate of stories and policies. It is not that it is fundamentally unhelpful to distinguish between types of moving people - quite the opposite. It is, however, unhelpful for the terms we use to have associations that do not properly describe the complexity of people’s needs.

 

When the propaganda poster claiming that ‘Careless talk costs lives’ launched during the Second World War, it was imagining a situation where the throwaway gossip of bus passengers was leaking vital state secrets. What we need now is a similar slogan aimed instead at the very public and seemingly careless talk of journalists and politicians. A wealthy country can never be neutral on these matters, - as academic David Turton has argued, ‘[f]orced migration is not something we discover but something we make’, and as journalist Daniel Trilling pointed out recently, you are either willing to help moving people, or you are willing to tolerate violence to stop them from moving. Similarly, when politicians and the media enter public discourse, it is not so much that the lives of moving people are in their hands as on their lips.

 

* The author would like to thank Lena Kainz for her advice in writing this piece