To Be Called Migrants or Refugees? That Is the Question

By Nayla Rush on September 30, 2015

The "migrant crisis" in Europe has been making headlines lately as reports abound on the hundreds of thousands of men, women, and children crossing its borders. These large flows of migrants (coming mostly from the Middle East and North Africa) are putting the European Union to the test as Europe faces its largest mass migration since the end of World War II. Public outrage escalated (especially following the picture of the drowned three-year-old boy on the Turkish shore), with calls to welcome everyone as EU leaders argue over logistics and numbers.

This migrant crisis has given rise to another type of controversy, one over semantics. A debate over the appropriate use of words when referring to the recent influx of migrants into Europe was started by the Al Jazeera media network. The network recently announced that it will no longer use the word "migrant" when covering people crossing the Mediterranean:

The umbrella term migrant is no longer fit for purpose when it comes to describing the horror unfolding in the Mediterranean. It has evolved from its dictionary definitions into a tool that dehumanizes and distances, a blunt pejorative.

According to the article, the news director at Al Jazeera English has decided that, since the term migrant has come to equate "nuisance," the network will "instead, where appropriate, say refugee."

UNHCR joined the debate soon after, stressing the difference between a refugee and a migrant: "Refugees are persons fleeing armed conflict or persecution. They are defined and protected in international law." It continues:

Migrants choose to move not because of a direct threat of persecution or death but mainly to improve their lives by finding work, or in some cases for education, family reunion, or other reasons. Unlike refugees who cannot safely return home, migrants face no such impediment to return.

UNHCR explains why this labelling distinction is crucial. Individual countries treat migrants according to their own immigration laws and policies, whereas "they have to deal with refugees through norms of refugee protection and asylum that are defined in both national legislation and international law." According to the agency, the use of the term migrant by certain governments can be politically motivated since undocumented migrants can be deported and denied protection, unlike refugees.

Going back to the correct labelling of people crossing the Mediterranean, UNHCR suggests the use of both "refugees and migrants," as some are refugees and some migrants.

In a post titled "Refugees are also Migrants and All Migrants Matter", Norwegian Professor Jorgen Carling finds this "two kinds of people" rhetoric troubling. Carling stresses first the humanitarian aspect of our response to emergencies, asking: "When people drown at sea or suffocate in lorries, our first question should not be 'so, which kind were they, refugees or migrants?'". He adds that the "two kind of people" accounts are ironically what define many of the wars these people had to run away from.

Carling reminds us also that an international migrant is, if one is to follow the United Nation's recommendations, "any person who changes his or her country of usual residence." Multiple factors can be behind this move, people migrate in search of a job, a better life, or to join a family member (these are not exclusive categories). They can also leave their country because of fear of persecution or to flee a conflict zone. A migrant, under these life-threatening circumstances, can apply for asylum and if granted, receive a refugee status.

Migration push factors are complex and often overlapping. A person may have fled a country of war, but the decision to continue one's journey may be linked to other factors, such as job opportunities or benefits, welcoming family members or networks, a change in the host country's immigration policy, etc. In the words of Carling, "motivations can be blurred and overlapping, defying neat categorization."

Even the common and seemingly clear-cut distinction between migrants and refugees, which stipulates that the former choose to move while the latter have to move, is not as obvious. Again, what part is pressure and part personal choice? In the midst of wars, and under the same circumstances, some stay while others leave. Some flee immediate life-threatening circumstances while others, like Syrians in Jordan or Lebanon, might feel propelled to continue on to Europe if only because of constraining camp-life conditions that were supposed to be temporary but now appear everlasting.

Carling is right to remind us that the determination of a refugee status "can be a messy and unpredictable process" and that each application needs to be reviewed with the utmost attention and care. What we really need, he adds, "is a migration policy that takes the starting point that migrants may or may not have well-founded fears of persecution."

After all and to summarize matters for the sake of semantics, a migrant can become a refugee (or not), but all refugees are migrants.

Barry Malone, Al Jazeera's online editor (author of the article quoted above) told the Washington Post that the network would happily revert to using the word migrant should the perceived negative connotation be dismissed. He added: "In an ideal world, perhaps neither refugee nor migrant would be used or twisted...perhaps we would all just be 'people.'"

We do agree, all migrants are human beings. And yes, we should be driven by our humanitarian sensibility and compassion. But what we cannot do is welcome all those who want or need to come here. Immigration policy is not to be reduced to an immense humanitarian program. In Carling's words: "Unlike motivations, immigration legislation is clear-cut". And, even in a not-so-ideal world, immigration legislation needs to be implemented, every step of the way.