Who wants to be a refugee? Scotland attempts to make migration more inclusive by inventing new words

BOEL MCATEER  |  23 OCTOBER 2021  |  ISSUE #17
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Photo by Duncan Hull on Flickr (CC BY 2.0).

In Scotland, local government and civil society have invented new words for people who have migrated to the country. The term ‘refuweegee’ was coined by a Glasgow-based charity with the same name, founded in 2015. Refuweegee is a combination of ‘refugee’ and the Scottish slang word ‘Weegie’ that means someone from Glasgow, creating a new noun defined as ‘a person who upon arrival in Glasgow is embraced by the people of the city’ and ‘considered to be a local’. The Scottish government takes a similar approach with the ‘New Scots’ integration strategy, first launched in 2014, which ‘includes people who have been granted refugee status or another form of humanitarian protection; people seeking asylum; and those whose application for asylum has been refused, but who remain in Scotland.’ Refuweegee and New Scots are both terms intended to create inclusion and prevent the perception that some migrants are more deserving than others, but they do not fully address the issues that go deeper than the words they are attached to.

 

Immigrant, economic migrant and refugee are words that all come with different connotations attached to them, signifying varying degrees of vulnerability and need, which can be harmful both to those portrayed as passive victims and to those portrayed as undeserving of protection. In the autumn of 2015, when the word ‘refugee’ became charged with a new meaning – attached to pictures of large groups of people making their way across Europe on foot and rubber boats crammed full of people dressed in orange life jackets – there was also a constant debate around who the ‘real’ refugees were. The media portrayed a situation where some people – the refugees – had fled from danger, while others were migrating for reasons seen as less legitimate and disguising themselves as refugees.

 

In this context, the word ‘refugee’ has come to mean someone who is considered to have a real need for protection abroad, and is thereby more welcome than other migrants. But this divisive interpretation is about perception, rather than the legal definition of who is a refugee. In reality, it is far from straightforward to distinguish refugees from other migrants. The same person can be considered a refugee in one country, by one government, but not in another, depending on how laws are interpreted. This consideration can also change over time, as governments can change their views on how dangerous a place of origin is.

 

The word ‘refugee’ carries the weight of international law, as it distinguishes those in need of international protection from migrants who have left their homes for other reasons – a distinction that is, however, far from black and white. The basis of refugee law, the Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, was adopted in 1951 and written to reflect the issues of its time. It offers protection to anyone who has crossed an international border due to a ‘well-founded fear of persecution’ in their home country. This includes political dissidents, which were common during the Cold War, and people persecuted for being members of a certain social or religious group, like so many were in Nazi Germany. 

 

The Refugee Convention does not offer protection to anyone fleeing a conflict or a war, even though they are often the ones who are perceived as refugees by the public and the media. Countries can choose to apply the convention in this way, by offering humanitarian protection, often temporarily, to anyone leaving an ongoing conflict like for example the wars in Syria or Yemen. However, the general rule is that refugee status in the form of asylum is granted on an individual basis to people who can demonstrate that they are personally under persecution in their home countries. In practice, this means that a Yazidi fleeing to another country from an area controlled by Daesh would be considered a refugee under persecution, because they have been targeted and attacked on the basis of their religion. Their Muslim neighbour, however, could be endangered by mortars, snipers and food shortages that often follow with conflict, but they would not be classified as a refugee because they are not fleeing persecution specific to them.

 

Who makes this distinction depends on the country where refugee status determination takes place. For someone to come to the UK as a refugee, there are two ways. The first one is for those who have been granted refugee status by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in a third country, often neighbouring the country they fled from, and are then resettled to the UK. This is unusual, as less than 1% of all refugees registered with UNHCR are resettled every year. The other way is to enter the UK to seek asylum, which means that the British Home Office will determine whether or not an individual qualifies as a refugee seeking protection under the 1951 Convention, rather than UNHCR. For the duration of the asylum process, which can last several years, that individual is not considered (or registered as) a refugee, but rather an asylum seeker, regardless of what the decision on their refugee status eventually is.

 

In Scotland, the devolved government manages all internal policies related to integration, such as health care, education and housing, while the British government is in charge of asylum. Since 1999 there is a dispersal policy, which means that asylum seekers who enter the country through England (as most do) can be relocated elsewhere for their asylum process. Glasgow is the only local council in Scotland that accepts dispersals, which makes it the only place where asylum seekers can live without having to find housing on their own, which most cannot afford. The term ‘refuweegee’ is best understood within this local context that is specific to Glasgow. Since many refuweegees are asylum seekers waiting for their refugee status determination, the connection to the word ‘refugee’ is somewhat misleading. It also risks reinforcing the perception that refugees are the only types of migrants that are welcome and should be looked after.

 

There is a similar issue with New Scots, since the government’s strategy itself is called the ‘refugee integration strategy’ despite covering all migrant groups. There are over 3,000 resettled Syrian refugees in Scotland, making this a significant migrant group alongside asylum seekers, but their circumstances are very different. For example, asylum seekers do not automatically have the right to work in the UK, while resettled refugees do. By emphasising the strategy’s focus on refugee integration, there is a risk that the term ‘New Scots’ will eventually come to have the same problems as other existing terms, and be more inclusive of some migrant groups than others.

 

Further reading and resources

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Boel McAteer

Boel McAteer is a researcher based in Edinburgh, Scotland. She holds a PhD in International Development focused on gender and refugee livelihoods, and she currently works in monitoring and evaluation.

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