Why do the terms we use to talk about refugees matter?
Language and naming are key to the construction of identity. The language we use to describe refugees impacts how we and society consider refugee issues, consciously or subconsciously. Through our language, we construct and reflect on refugee identity.
The psychologist Dr Kenneth Acha defines identity as one of the seven fundamental human needs. He notes the distinction between self-identity and social identity. Social identity refers to how you are perceived by others in society, and self-identity refers to how you view yourself. Social identity is often defined by characteristics you share with others, and self-identity by a sense of what sets you apart from others. The terms we use impact refugees’ social identity, and can infringe on their self-identity.
We must be aware of the full repercussions of the terms we use. ‘Refugee’ is a term with a specific and limited legal sense as well as its wider meaning, and this cannot be ignored. In turn, the term ‘migrant’ is unavoidably politicised.
The limitations of the legal definition of ‘refugee’
The status of ‘refugee’ is legally defined and protected in international law, under the UN’s 1951 Geneva Convention. This defines a refugee as someone who “owing to well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country”.
This definition is proclaimed by UNHCR (the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees) as “the most comprehensive codification of the rights of refugees at the international level”. However, it is limited and constraining.
The first issue is the notion of persecution. As Migration Collective notes, this excludes victims of war, violence, climate change, human rights violations, and poverty. Climate change is forcing more and more people to flee their homes, but these so-called ‘climate refugees’ are not legally refugees, due to the limited definition.
Acknowledging this limitation, in 2011, UNHCR expanded its definition to include people forced from their country “owing to serious and indiscriminate threats to life, physical integrity or freedom resulting from generalized violence or events seriously disturbing public order”. However, this expanded sense is not legally binding, or part of the legal definition of ‘refugee’.
This definition also requires refugees to have left their home country. This fact excludes huge numbers of internally displaced people (IDPs). In mid-2021, UNHCR estimated that of 84 million forcibly displaced people worldwide, 48 million were IDPs, while 26.6 million were refugees. By 11th March 2022, a staggering 1.85 million of the 4.2 million Ukrainians forcibly displaced by war with Russia were internally displaced. While UNHCR does provide some aid and protection for such IDPs, the limitations of the ‘refugee’ definition mean that they are not eligible for the same levels of legal protection.
Moreover, the legal status of refugee is only granted by claiming asylum, which is often a difficult and prolonged process. In the UK, most asylum-seekers do not have the right to work while awaiting the result of their claim, a process which can take years. To be applicable for the protection outlined in the 1951 Convention, refugees also have to be registered with UNHCR. As Zetter warns, the bureaucratic nature of this definition dehumanises its subjects. He states, “a story is thus reformed into a case, a category”.
The legal status of ‘refugee’ is one inextricably linked with bureaucracy, not humanity. We need terms that acknowledge refugees’ existence beyond this label.
The tricky territory of the term ‘migrant’
Unlike the term ‘refugee’, ‘migrant’ is not a term defined under international law. The most widely used definition is the UN’s definition of a long-term international migrant: “A person who moves to a country other than that of his or her usual residence for a period of at least one year, so that the country of destination effectively becomes his or her new country of usual residence.” This can be for any reason: tourism, job, education, or (like refugees) forcible displacement. All that ‘migrant’ means, essentially, is someone who moves - permanently, temporarily, voluntarily, or forced.
In theory, then, ‘migrant’ should be a relatively neutral term. Unfortunately, there is no such thing as neutrality in language.
In recent years, the term ‘migrant’ has become increasingly and unavoidably politicised. In a 2015 article, Mawuna Remarque Koutonin condemned the fact that white westerners who move abroad are termed ‘expats’, while African and Asian people moving to Europe are known as ‘migrants’ or ‘immigrants’, whatever their reason for moving and whatever their profession or class.
The far-right in particular has co-opted this term. People often apply it without consideration for individual circumstances, and ignore the more specific, legally defined and protected statuses of refugee and 'asylum seeker'. It is used to dehumanise, and to remove an individual's reasons for migration from consideration.
In a since-deleted 2015 column for The Sun, Katie Hopkins compared migrants to “cockroaches”, urging the use of gunships to prevent their journey across the Mediterranean. This vitriolic abuse was deservedly condemned, but unfortunately, it is not an anomaly.
A 2013 report conducted by Oxford University’s Migration Observatory analysed the use of the terms “immigrants”, “migrants”, “asylum seekers” and “refugees” in UK national newspapers. It found that “illegal” was the most common word associated with “immigrant”, and first or second most common with “migrant”. Both terms were also consistently associated with numbers: “millions”, “thousands”, “influx”, “wave”. This shows that both ‘migrant’ and ‘immigrant’ are terms consistently associated in the media with criminality and multitude, dehumanising the people beneath the terms themselves.
Due to these issues, in 2015 the news outlet Al Jazeera committed to using the term ‘refugee’ instead of ‘migrant’. In an article explaining this decision, Barry Malone described the word ‘migrant’ as “a tool that dehumanises and distances, a blunt pejorative”. Judith Vonberg criticised this decision, accusing Al Jazeera of “reinforcing the dichotomy of ‘good refugee’ and ‘bad migrant’” that the far-right creates. Nonetheless, it is near-impossible to use the term ‘migrant’ without conveying - however unintentionally - its destructive baggage.
We must not fall into the trap of dehumanising language.
Why does this matter?
The language we use constructs refugees’ identity, impacting how they are viewed.
Of course, names and stories are best. Refugeehood is never the sole or primary aspect of a refugee’s identity. But sometimes general terms are necessary.
Throughout this piece, I have used the term refugee in its wider, non-legal sense, as Migration Collective discusses. It is important to recognise that the term refugee represents both a social identity and a legal sense, and the two may not always overlap. Using the term in its wider sense aims to show the limitations and narrowness of this legal sense. It urges a broader, human, view of refugees.
As Migration Collective notes, refugees may “move from one definition to another ... from internally displaced, to asylum seeker, to refugee”. Though the terms used to describe them may change (together with corresponding rights and protections), they remain the same person. Clearly, these terms do not convey their whole identity. These terms are “a construction of the law that shapes people’s experience but does not define it entirely”.
Ultimately, “What all these people share is humanity”. Refugees are neither victims nor villains, but people. The terms we use to describe them, their lives, and their stories must recognise this.
Malone, Barry, ‘Why Al Jazeera will not say Mediterranean ‘migrants’, Al Jazeera (20/8/2015)
Migration Collective, ‘The terminology of migration’ (12/6/2020)
Vonberg, Judith, ‘Al Jazeera Will Not Say Mediterranean 'Migrants' but We Should’, The Huffington Post (25/8/2015)
Zetter, Roger, ‘Labelling Refugees: Forming and Transforming a Bureaucratic Identity’, in Journal of Refugee Studies 4:1 (1991)