During the Nacht van de Vluchteling (Refugee Night) between Rotterdam and The Hague, CONTAINED Project in collaboration with international students confront walkers of this fundraising walk with dilemmas on refugees for a moment of silent reflection as they pass through a nature reserve. Further along the route, they can exchange thoughts with students and teachers and fellow walkers.

The dilemmas and underlying information are curated by students of the interdisciplinary Master degree Governance of Migration and Diversity (GMD), based on what changed their perspective during this degree, and what they think people need to know about migration and refugees. Rather than coming up with clear-cut answers, they raise difficult questions with no simple answers.

Are you walking Refugee Night Rotterdam-The Hague? What did you think of your dilemma? Click on the dilemmas below to read insights and reflections from the students. We will collect reflections from walkers during the Night and add them on this page! You can also leave a message on our Facebook page.

What would you ask to decide if someone really is a refugee?

What is this about?

What does it take to attain the status of a ‘refugee’? The definition from the UN refugee convention requires you to be not only fleeing persecution, war or violence but also that you must have a well-founded fear of persecution based on your race, religion, nationality, political orientation or membership in a particular social group.

But what exactly denotes a well-founded fear? What are the perimeters for membership in a particular social group? These factors are not clearly defined. Over the past three decades, the definition has also been increasingly narrowly defined. Last, this EPRS report shows that it does not offer solutions for ‘climate refugees’ escaping an environmental disaster.

Are most of those arriving to Europe during the “migration crisis” economic migrants? IOM states that 83% of the nearly 700 000 arrivals to the EU during 2015 by sea are mainly from Syria (including Palestinians who had been living there), Afghanistan, Iraq and Eritrea. These are all countries where citizens face war and, or repressive governments. Many migrants may not qualify for refugee status because of the narrow interpretation of this definition but still escaped violence, are vulnerable and unable to return home.

How can we distinguish between a ‘migrant and a ‘refugee’? This distinction is very hard to make. In practice, poverty, political violence and corruption are mixed up, creating mixed motivations to leave. This infographic Mixed Migration Centre gives some insights into motivations to leave. Although asylum policy seems like a machine, it is also a machine made up of humans who need to make sometimes arbitrary choices.


“The strict category of being a refugee, and the difficulty of fitting into that.” (GMD Master Student)

“The categories of migrant and refugee serve the purpose of managing and controlling immigration: If you are not assessed as a refugee, you do not get any protection, no matter if you are in danger in your country of origin.” (GMD Master Student)

“Refugees are increasingly vulnerable despite the refugee convention because countries are increasingly unwilling to take in refugees and no international body checks how the convention is implemented.” (GMD Master Student)

“I realized the vulnerability of the refugees is both shaped by sending and receiving countries and there is no power to force the receiving countries to treat them as what the International Law regulated.” (GMD Master Student)

“I learned that a highly educated migrant arriving on a working visa can start working right away. A refugee with the same skills needs to pass asylum procedures and integration courses and waits for years before they can pick up their career.” (GMD Master Student)

“I learned that wanted migrants (e.g. expats) do not fall under control mechanisms such as integration courses and quota.” (GMD Master Student)

“People who decide over asylum cases are not always as educated as you would hope. It is a life changing decision for the asylum seeker and officers who decide if an asylum seeker should be granted asylum or not have to deal with incredibly complex cases and situations yet often get limited training to do so.” (GMD Master Student)

Would you risk your life to save your life?

What is this about?

Why do refugees and other migrants risk their lives on an improvised boat (and why do they not take a plane?) It’s not that they can’t afford it. The impossibility to get a visa and the sanctions that are imposed on airlines to carry undocumented travellers forces people into dangerous routes (see for example Liberties.eu, 2018)

What is the chance of dying when crossing the Mediterranean? 1 in 18 people died at sea while crossing the Mediterranean from Libya in 2018. This UNHCR Report shows that “the number of refugees and migrants making the Mediterranean Sea crossing fell in 2018 but it is likely that reductions to search and rescue capacity coupled with an uncoordinated and unpredictable response to disembarkation led to an increased death rate as people continued to flee their countries due to conflict, human rights violations, persecution, and poverty”.

What is the role of smugglers? Smugglers respond to a need to arrange journeys that are not legally possible. Sometimes they operate like travel agencies, while sometimes they take advantage of vulnerable people. This infographic by Mixed Migration Centre shows which services smugglers provided to people on the move and how they felt treated by their smugglers.


“The fact that refugees cannot take a plane to flee from horror, but need to walk day and night using smugglers paying big amounts of money is really weird and wrong.” (GMD Master Student)

“Personally, I found it eye opening to learn about the blurry role of the smugglers and even traffickers in the whole chain of migration. They are often demonised and depicted as ‘evil’ or ‘part of the problem’ or something, but I actually never realised how blurry this is and that in a lot of cases they are helping people get across safely and that migrants need them and their services.” (GMD Master student)

Do we overestimate or underestimate refugees’ survival skills?

What is this about?

What are the challenges and strategies migrants face, and which actors have an influence on that? Refugees have different capacities, skills, and motivations to leave a dangerous place. Their strategies in interplay with gatekeepers, observers and bystanders shape the outcomes of their migration.

Are refugees only victims? Refugees are victims of war, but many of them are also among the better educated, wealthier, and more entrepreneurial minority of their country, who have managed to undertake and survive extremely dangerous journeys and adapt to continuously changing circumstances. Although patterns are very diverse, an SCP report on Syrian refugees in the Netherlands shows that 44 per cent of Syrians between 25-34 has completed higher education.


“The will that migrants have to utilise any given opportunities a maximum.” (GMD Master Student)

“They do not have to accept low standards in life just because they are in a vulnerable position. They deserve all the support in their receiving countries, and they also have to be heard.” (GMD Master student)

“From a personal experience, migration can be lonely and always turns out to be more complicated/difficult than expected (little problems pop up everywhere). So involuntary migration or with very little resources must be a thousand times worse.” (GMD Master Student)

“I am a migrant. I came from the Global south to Europe (The Netherlands). It has been a constant learning on how to fit into a new culture and this “new” way of life. I have to think way more before doing something or asking something to someone, just because maybe I am not doing in the right way. I had to re-educate myself :).” (GMD Master Student)

Are refugees an economic burden or an economic asset to society?

What is this about?

Will refugees pose a financial burden to the countries that host them? Offering shelter and support to refugees initially costs a lot of money. However, research has found that accepting refugees actually boosts national economies. Economically speaking, accepting refugees is a good investment in the financial future of a nation (see this One article).

Do migrants and refugees create or take jobs away from local people? IOM states that migrants accounted for 47% of the increase in the workforce in the United States and 70% in Europe over the past ten years according to the OECD. Migrants often take jobs that others are less willing to do or take, and can help fill gaps in the job market. They tend to complement rather than compete with the local labour force. Last, migrant entrepreneurs create jobs.

In which sectors are migrants needed the most? According to ILO, migrants are globally needed to take jobs in agriculture (11,1%), industry (17,8%), service (63,4%) and domestic workers (7,7%).

How does migration affect countries of origin? This is a complex calculation: on one hand, migrants are often better qualified and wealthier people than average, meaning a ‘brain drain’ for the country (see here). On the other hand, people can contribute to and invest in their country from abroad. Migrants sometimes play an important role in the country where they are from: They can influence homeland policies through for example boycotts, and affect outcomes of national elections. The academic jury is still out!


“Refugees and migrants, in my opinion, are an asset and not a problem.” (GMD Master Student)

“No one speaks about how much we need (all kinds of) migrants.” (GMD Master Student)

How far would you travel to escape conflict and violence?

What is this about?

Is Europe facing the world’s heaviest refugee burden? 10% of the world’s refugees is in the EU. UNHCR at a Glance shows that 85% of the world’s refugees are hosted in developing regions, and that Turkey, Uganda, Pakistan, Lebanon and Iran are the top-5 hosting countries, together hosting 30% of refugees worldwide.

Do we need to focus on shelter in the region? 80-90% of all refugees are already hosted in neighbouring countries. This UNHCR report shows that most do not plan to come to Europe. Those who do, are forced out of neighbouring countries due to limited access to food, shelter, healthcare and to escape exploitation or death.

Travel near or far? Do all migrants and refugees want to come to Europe? Migration journeys are never a straight line from origin to destination. This infographic illustrates that with every step, decisions have to be made and boundaries have to be crossed. This is why most people on the move will stay close to their place of origin – only a fraction of migrants and refugees want to, or are able to, travel further afield and reach Europe. Interactive online maps by Metrocosm, Pewglobal and IOM brilliantly show patterns of migration.

If they are looking for safety, why don’t refugees don’t just stay in the first EU country? The ‘Dublin Regulation’ requires refugees to stay in the first ‘safe’ EU country that they arrive; at least until their asylum claims are properly processed. In practice however, this has left thousands of refugees stranded in Southern Europe. In a 2015 testimony, a medic from Doctors Without Borders described the situation in Greece as the worst he had ever seen: “I have worked in many refugee camps before, in Yemen, Malawi, and Angola. But here, on the island of Kos, this is the first time in my life that I have seen people so totally abandoned”. Human Rights Watch reported that Greek reception centres, where arriving refugees are held, are ‘unsafe and unsanitary’. This helps to explain people’s decisions to continue and move across Europe to other countries where they expect better conditions.


“I learned that such a small percentage come to Europe (I thought it was more evenly distributed).” (GMD Master Student)

“On the Caribbean Islands, there is currently a large influx of Venezuelan refugees. (…) The international community and international media outlets all fail to recognize the struggle of Caribbean islands to manage the large streams of Venezuelan refugees. I think this should be an issue that receives more attention as a lot of the Caribbean islands receiving such large influxes do not have the necessary resources to handle these situations.” (GMD Master Student)

Do people have the right to live in another country when they want to?

What is this about?

Does border control stop refugees from coming? No, it merely shifts it to other countries. Migrants and asylum seekers are more likely to resort to entering a country irregularly when there are no legal alternatives. This often means relying on smugglers and using routes that expose them to numerous dangers, abuses and even death. This is why more credible, legal and safe ways to reach Europe need to be created such as resettlement, more flexible procedures for family reunification and humanitarian and other visas.

Do border controls decrease or increase irregular migration? Countries with high migration restrictions do not necessarily succeed in reducing immigration.  for example, Mexican migration to the US shows that increasing restrictions and border enforcements along the US-Mexico border did not stop migration, but pushed Mexicans desiring to migrate to use more smuggling services to cross the border at isolated and dangerous border points. This has made migration more costly and dangerous, lowered return rates and increased settlement of Mexican families in the US.


“There are no easy solutions and nations and organisations should work together to develop a migration regime that favours sending countries, receiving countries and migrants.” (GMD Master Student)

“Due to over-restrictive migration regulations, many immigrants had no choice but to become illegal and can hardly access necessary protections for their basic rights.” (GMD Master Student)

Is return ‘home’ after conflict the best solution for refugees?

What is this about?

Is return after conflict the best solution for refugees? Repatriation programmes of refugees and asylum seekers are based on the assumption that going back ‘home’ is the best thing to do to undo the negative consequences of war.  that were embodied in refugee flows. Especially after international military intervention, returning refugees can show that peace was established. Yet poor reintegration and re-emigration show the often-limited success of these repatriation programmes. For many migrants and refugees who have a choice, return remains a deeply desired wish that never comes true because circumstances are never right. UNHCR has a collection of stories of the complexities of return.


“Most people wish to return home, but feel unable to do so to the extent that remaining undocumented appears to be a better option than returning home.” (GMD Master Student)

Is moving part of human nature or a response to a crisis?

What is this about?

How new is migration? Migration is defined as people crossing international borders for an extended period of time. In human history, people have always been on the move according to grazing pastures, water sources and suitable land for agriculture. Borders, on the other hand, are relatively new phenomena that only emerged in the mid-19th century. In that sense, the phenomenon of migration emerged with the emergence of borders, but mobility is of all times. Since the 1960s, global migration has fluctuated around 3 per cent, of which a small and stable proportion of 10 per cent are refugees.

Has Europe recently experienced a refugee and migration crisis? In 2015, there was an increase in the number of refugees and migrants coming to Europe, 1 million in fact, which is three to four times the figure in 2014 (Reuters, 2015). This is a lot, but equally split between all 28 member states and 508 million inhabitants (so 0.3 per cent of that population) this should have been manageable. The political crisis – about which countries should take responsibility to host how many refugees – was tougher to handle, especially in light of nationalist and populist uprisings.

How is human migration linked with global change? Moving is a natural reaction to adapt to both sudden and gradual changes and imbalances in society, including economic and political inequality, as well as conflict and environmental change. By being mobile, people can be resilient in the context of growing inequality and insecurity.


“In the Netherlands, I think more emphasis needs to be placed on teaching the history of immigration and incorporating intersectionality into history classes from a younger age. Migrants all have distinct experiences and are not a ‘new phenomenon’ here.” (GMD Master Student)

“The fact that the media has had a lot of impact on dramatizing the situation. I’ve always known that they possessed that power, but in specificity to the ‘migration crisis’ occurring in Europe, they played a large role in creating a whole new narrative regarding this movement which has completely shaped the public’s perception of the situation. Instead of seeing it as something natural, it has been dramatized in a negative way to the point that people become extremely intolerant of this movement.” (GMD Master Student)

Why would you not leave a place of conflict and violence?

What is this about?

Who migrates, and who doesn’t? 96.6 per cent of the world’s population lives in the country where they were born. Only 3.4 per cent of the world’s population is a migrant, of which about 10 per cent is a humanitarian migrant (UN 2017).

Where do most refugees come from? UNHCR Global Trends shows that two thirds of refugees are from Syria, Afghanistan, South Sudan, Myanmar and Somalia. For example For South Sudan, 2 million Sudanese a refugee, another 2 million are displaced. This is almost a third of the total population. For Afghanistan, a country in protracted conflict, it has been estimated that one third of the population has been a refugee at least once in their life. Yet even in these extreme cases, the majority of the population does not leave the country. Only for Syria, more than half of the population is currently outside of Syria.

Why do most other people not leave, even in conflict areas? Leaving is a very difficult choice – meaning that you have to leave behind family, take a risk, have an idea of where you can go, and pay your way to get there. The poorest of the poor will not be able to do so, due to a lack of resources or social networks (WorldBank 2017). Others do not want to leave, out of fear, patriotism, or because they feel too old.


“I liked the question one of the teachers raised: Why do so many people stay (compared to migrate)? Which also highlights that it is a large minority of the world population who actually migrate.” (GMD Master student)

“Nobody wants to leave their home without a very good reason.” (GMD Master student)

“It’s not a fun choice to leave.” (GMD Master student)

Where would you go if your home disappears in climate change-induced floods?

What is this about?

What is a ‘climate refugee’? The term ‘climate refugee’ was first introduced in 1985 as a means to describe those forced from their residences, communities, or even countries by climatic or environmental pressures (UN, 1985). It referred primarily to those displaced as a result of natural disasters such as tsunamis, earthquakes, hurricanes or tropical storms. For people in the Netherlands, facing rising sea levels, there is a real chance that they will become climate refugees themselves in the future.

Are climate refugees are all those who move as a result of climate change? The UN term climate refugee does not fully include all those on the move as a result of climate change. While it takes into account people escaping natural disasters, it does not take into account the more gradual effects of climate change. Estimates suggest that 90% of the surrounding area of Mumbai have fled their villages due to desertification, drought and soil loss (The Guardian, 2019. With similar situations of protracted drought in the Sahel region, many migrants arriving in Europe were categorised as economic, or irregular, migrants. The fact that their agricultural livelihoods back home were destroyed due to drought was often discounted.

What are the rights of protection of climate refugees? The term climate refugee is proven to have no grounding in law, as the Refugee Convention does not provide for those unless they have been “forced to flee his or her country because of persecution, war or violence…and has a well-founded fear of persecution for reasons of race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a particular social group” (UNHCR, 2019). It was claimed individuals cannot be ‘persecuted’ by natural disasters (yet again highlighting the need for modernisation of the 1951 Refugee Convention).


“I learned that environmental tragedies are not sufficient to classify someone as a refugee” (GMD Master Student)

When does solidarity for refugees (not) help to improve their situation?

What is this about?

What can I do to show solidarity for refugees? You are doing a great job by walking Refugee Night! UNHCR has a nice way to show solidarity using your selfies of the Night of refugees walk.

But what can I do for refugees? Honestly, one great and easy way is to approach refugees as normal human beings, with respect and dignity. Research shows that ‘Overvictimisation’ can stand in the way of building up a new life. If you want to do more, make sure that you are informed on the situation by reliable sources, think about what resources you have to offer (time, money, skills, power, access to information, knowledge) and what the needs are of your target group or audience. For example, this set of dilemmas and background information was curated by students who felt that nuanced insights on migration was what they had to offer to a group of highly engaged walkers of the Refugee Night, so that they might spread this information in their network.

Is showing solidarity always allowed? Some acts of solidarity are considered as criminal acts by states. For example, search and rescue operations on the Mediterranean sea. This report shows that there is a shrinking space to show solidarity for migrants and refugees.

How are countries obliged to protect refugees? Every country that has signed and ratified the refugee convention is obliged to allow people to claim asylum. However, countries deal with this obligation differently. A much-criticized case is Australia’s processing of refugees on ‘offshore processing centres’ on the islands of Nauru and Papua New Guinea. This UNHCR report describes how self-harm and suicide are common in asylum seekers and refugees.


“I know how quickly solidarity can erupt and what backlashes it can create. 2015 train station Vienna: people sharing and caring with refugees. 2018 train station Vienna: police control, right wing propaganda and anti-migrant slogans.” (GMD Master student)

“My family and I arrived in the Netherlands as refugees. When people here hear our story they are always very shocked and empathetic and even call us ‘brave’ or whatever. Often these can be the same people that say refugees shouldn’t be let in because it’s too crowded, they should find help in the region or whatever. So it’s weird because it shows that they are harsher in their judgement because to them ‘refugees’ don’t have a familiar face and are just ‘someone else’s problem’. But as soon as it becomes personal or gets closer people become more human. People are weird.” (GMD Master student)

“Don’t accept information you are being fed and look at migrants and refugees from different angels.” (GMD Master student)

Refugee Night is a yearly fundraiser event organized by Stichting Vluchteling in the night of 15-16 June 2019. On the 40-kilometre route between Rotterdam and the Hague, participants pass through a nature reserve – good for a moment of silent reflection on a pressing dilemma on refugees! 

Refugee Night Dilemmas is part of the effort of CONTAINED Project to connect experience, research, and creative learning to create dialogues and more understanding about migration, in collaboration with students from the MSC programme Governance of Migration and Diversity at Erasmus University Rotterdam, Institute of Social Studies, Leiden University and Delft University, Jessyfish, and Refugee Night. 

Curating and audience engagement: Suzan Abozyid – Ali Buck – Annika Fuchs – Lizzy Linklater – Basma Mansour – Fabienne Meershoek – Maren Schulz – Dr. Marieke van Houte (with many thanks to all GMD students!) Design and Social Media Ali Buck