“Refugees” or “migrants”? The power and politics of naming


The current (and long-standing) political, economic, and moral crisis facing Europe and the world as people move to avoid war, crippling economies, famine, and persecution, among other forms of oppression and inequality, sparks debates about how to define or discursively position people on the move: “refugees”, “migrants”, “asylum seekers”, “immigrants”, etc.

As the following editorials reveal, discourse and “mere words” matter because the people they include or exclude matter.

Carling, J. (2015). Refugees are Also Migrants. And All Migrants Matter. (Accessed 4.9.15).
Sengupta, S. (2015). Migrant or Refugee? There Is a Difference, With Legal Implications. The New York Times, World Section (27.8.15) (Accessed 4.9.15).
Taylor, A. (2015). Is it time to ditch the word ‘migrant’? The Washington Post, World Views Section (24.8.15) (Accessed 4.9.15).
Ruz, C. (2015). The battle over the words used to describe migrants. BBC News Magazine (28.8.15) (Accessed 4.9.15).
Marsh, D. (2015). We deride them as ‘migrants’. Why not call them people? The Guardian (28.8.15) (Accessed 4.9.15).

See also this text from Agnes Bodis (Macquarie University) entitled “Who is a real refugee?” (23.9.15)

In it, Bodis looks at how historical experience, argumentation and metaphors have contributed to creating a powerful anti-migration discourse in Hungary and Europe as a whole. Bodis also draws on Ruth Wodak’s (2001) discourse-historical work exploring anti-Semitic and populist discourse in Austria. Wodak, R. (2001). The discourse-historical approach. In R. Wodak & M. Meyer (Eds.), Methods of Critical Discourse Analysis (Vol. 63-94). London: Sage

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  • This is very important and current question. Because of legal reasons it is sometimes a benefit for an individual to gain status of “refugee”.

    On the other hand the use of “refugee” may have a negative and long-lasting influence to a persons identity and social relations.

  • In my opinion, it is important to choose your words wisely. Using the term “migrant” in this context is politically incorrect, since there are differences in the law between refugees and migrants. Refugees are explicitly entitled to protection in Europe and they cannot be sent back to their home countries, since they are actually fleeing from something completely serious.

    Even if this is the political point of view, I personally disagree with it and much rather side with the linked The Guardian article about calling these people just that – people. The words that we use really do have an impact and usually carry some kind of negative stigma that might be dehumanizing, so why not use a neutral term?

  • It is important to discuss this question. I agree with the article from The Guardian and I also think that we should rather call the refugees people than try to categorize them like they were some kind of objects and not human at all. In my opinion, the word “refugee” really does have a negative meaning and we should try to use a more neutral term.

  • It is quite interesting how words can have such strong feelings and connotations attached to them. Even in Finnish the word ”maahanmuuttaja” has a much more negative tone than, for example, ”turvapaikanhakija”. Because of these hidden biases and meanings these words have, it is extremely important to recognise them and use more appropriate and neutral terms.

  • “Refugee” and “migrant” are being used more and more, at least in the social media commenting, as synonyms even though they really are not and this incorrect use of words in media seem to have a negative effect on how people understand the word “refugee”. I think it is very important to understand the difference between the two words because migrants and refugees can come from very different backgrounds and labeling them all the same isn’t good for anyone.

  • When I think the word “refugee”, my first image is a person who has escaped from his/her orginal country because of political crisis, famine, religious persecution, ethnic cleansing, genocide etc. “Migrant” can be a person moving to the new country because of love (he/she has a girl-/boyfriend in this new country) or applying for the job or because of studies. He/she shouldn’t have escaped from original country. On the other hand refugee is migrant too, but migrant isn’t always refugee. Migrant might be frustrated with the political situation in his/her country, that’s why he/she has move away.

  • Both words have strong meanings and tend to invoke different kinds of reactions. Word choice can even reveal the opinion of its writer. Especially in news, a neutral term should be used and everyone should remember that those people who they are referring to, are indeed humans who should be treated and referred to as such.

  • Language is a powerful tool and in my opinion those who can use it to influence a lot of people, like politicians and people working in the media, have a responsibility when it comes to using it. Right now immigration is a delicate issue in Europe; there are many cultural, economic and social aspects involved, and many people feel very strongly about it. This is why, I believe, it is more important than perhaps ever to be conscious of the language we use when we talk about this issue – words like “refugee”, “migrant” and “asylum seeker” each have very different connotations, and the word we choose to use will send a message to the people listening to us. My personal opinion is that whether somebody, who moves to another country is seeking asylum, or work, or their loved ones, is irrelevant. They are still a person and thus deserve respect and basic human rights; which is why, I think, everyone should strive to use the most politically correct term with the least negative connotations when talking about immigration and immigrants.

  • This brings me back to the very first lesson I can remember on critical reading. Then we focused how word choices in a supposedly neutral source (newspaper) had different connotations and how nothing in the news can be neutral even if that is what news stations are supposedly striving to. (After more studying I am now more aware of the underlying agendas)

    I think that the combination of news and social media is making news stories even more loaded. These articles illustrate well how a seemingly simple thing can carry a lot of meaning and how the meaning behind words can change to extreme in a relatively small amount of time. I wonder if anyone thought more about the usage of these words before the crisis.

    I wholeheartedly agree that refugees should rather be called people. In other discussions I am also a big advocate of calling people simply people and reminding that it is what we all are.

  • Words itself are not good or bad; its the context that they are used in. Words “migrant” or “refugee” are both proper words which carry a meaning. If you they take them out of context they may gain a negative connotation. A populist politician may start talking that “refugees” are coming to steal our jobs, which is of course not true; they trying to get away from oppression and war. In this case the word “refugee” loses its value(meaning) and could be replaced with any word. You could say that people from Sweden are trying to steal our jobs and it would be equally untrue. Some group of people used word “mamu”, but replaced it with word “matu” (as it would be more subtle way of racism), but they still use it in the same context and thus it still has the same meaning. I think that people should not be over sensitive about the words that are being used, but the context in which the words are used in.

  • It was interesting to read how the term “migrant” has had its connotation of agency emphasised and how that in turn has led to it, and by extension anyone called a migrant, being viewed in a more negative light. I suppose it stems from people leaning more heavily towards the legalistic definitions of the terms “migrant” and “refugee”, yet it seems that those legal terms fail to account for the experiences of the asylum seekers, especially if only the people who’ve successfully gone through the asylum-seeking process are allowed to call themselves refugees.

  • Agree with Risto Rantanen. I think there should be only one correct word for each meaning. And it should not be changed.
    It doesn’t matter how polite words are used for any group of people. If someone wants to hurt other, he can call them with this polite word with such nasty tone, so everyone understands him. Every word can be used as a threat. Changing meanings can’t help it.

  • The biggest refugee-crisis in Europe seems to be over, but it might return worse than ever. Now that Donald Trump is likely to become the president of the USA, people are getting scared around the world. No one knows for sure what his politics will be like, but if we believe the things he has said during his campaing, we should be prepared to the worst. Trump seems eager to drive away every person who is not 100% white away from the States and he has said that the USA would start bombing ISIS. If this happens, there will not be only many people escaping and moving from the USA, creating a whole new problem to Canada and to Latin America, but with ISIS bombings there will once again be refugees from that part of the world, probably trying to get asylum from the Europe. No one can know this for sure, but this could be good time for people to realise all the harm it will cause and that the refugees are, in fact, also human beings, who happen to desperately need some help.

  • The mere fact this matter has even sparked such an extensive debate is a brilliant example of how the desire to remain politically correct has overruled the importance of decisive argumentation and action. As has been stated previously, the words “migrant” and “refugee” both have clear and well-established meanings that should be inherently obvious to anyone with an ounce of common sense, and those who fail to distinguish between the two should really have no place in a political or philosophical debate anyway.

    The core issue here is that migrants don’t invoke as much sympathy among people as refugees, so people alternate between the two terms as best suits their rhetoric despite the fact both migrants and refugees form significant portions of the current flood into Europe. Which brings me to an interesting point about this article itself: why are we only viewing this argument from one, biased point of view? Most of the linked articles are based on Al-Jazeera’s decision to no longer use the word “migrant” when discussing the would-be refugees traveling across the Mediterranean; an Arabic news site talking about a great source of suffering to the Arabic peoples in particular. So where are the counter-articles discussing why we should be referring to refugees solely as migrants, or preferably yet non-biased articles taking both sides of the argument into consideration equally? Or are we just here to enforce the writer’s personal views?

  • I think one of the reasons this is a relevant topic is because how we label people and things inherently influences our perception of them. Labels carry their own associations and biases and these associations carry over to how we conduct debates on the topic and what we say about it.

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