The language of migration: refugee vs. migrant

August 25, 2015
Category: Uncategorized
A file photo of a Syrian refugee carrying a baby over the broken border fence into Turkey after breaking the border fence and crossing from Syria in Akcakale, Sanliurfa province, southeastern Turkey.  (AP Photo/Lefteris Pitarakis, File)

A file photo of a Syrian refugee carrying a baby over the broken border fence into Turkey after breaking the border fence and crossing from Syria in Akcakale, Sanliurfa province, southeastern Turkey. (AP Photo/Lefteris Pitarakis, File)

What is the difference between a migrant and a refugee, and which term describes a person crossing the Mediterranean Sea seeking asylum in Europe?

In a series of interviews with radio journalists in Canada, I tried to make sense of this distinction.  I noticed, for example, that news coverage by Reuters and the Guardian seemed to use migrant and refugee interchangeably, but with a preference for migrant.  I’ve come to believe that these words are not synonyms, and that their differences are significant.

Let’s begin with the definitions from the American Heritage Dictionary:

migrant:  1. One that moves from one region to another by chance, instinct, or plan. 2.  An itinerant worker who travels from one area to another in search of work.

refugee:  One who flees in search of refuge, as in times of war, political oppression, or religious persecution.

My sense is that the status of the refugee is, in general, more urgent than that of the migrant.  The migrant may be in a bad circumstance and may need more work or better living conditions.  But the refugee is more desperate.  The migrant may flee a jobless economy with all its consequences, but the refugee seeks life-saving protection from war or even genocide.

Barry Malone, writing for Al Jazeera argues:

“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….Migrant deaths are not worth as much to the media as the death of others.”

Should other news organizations follow Al Jazeera’s lead and give preference to “refugee” over “migrant”?

I would say, in general, yes.  But this distinction hangs upon an important peg:  reporting.  It is not the primary responsibility of journalists to characterize a particular group based upon an ideological preference.  It is, instead, to be a witness on land and on the sea – to check things out; to act as the eyes and ears of the audience.  In the words of the novelist Joseph Conrad, to make us see.   Who are these people huddled in boats?  Where did they come from?  Where do they hope to go?  For humanitarian purposes, what do they need?

If journalists answer those questions well, I will be less concerned with their generalizations and characterizations.

I accept that how we see a particular person or family may well determine how we treat them. Words will shape our vision.  If I am approached on the street by a scruffy, staggering man, what words will pop into my head?  Will I see him as homeless? As needy, desperate or ill?  Or will I see a bum, degenerate, panhandler, whack-job drunk?  How will those words shape my actions?

As this semantic/humanitarian debate plays out in the Middle East and Europe, I am reminded of our own immigration debates and how they have see-sawed on ideological language, with terms like “anchor babies.”  I still hear, in news and commentary, people referred to as “illegal aliens,” a name that sounds more like people dropping from spaceships than crossing our borders. More sympathetic critics refer to “undocumented workers,” as if only completing the paperwork was the problem.

I remember a debate 10 years ago about what to call those who fled from Hurricane Katrina.  Some critics thought the words “evacuees” and “displaced” were “too clinical and not sufficiently dramatic to convey the dire situation that confronts many of Katrina’s survivors.”

One suggestion was that those who left should be called “refugees.”  African-American leaders objected, arguing that such a term treated American citizens as if they came from another country.  I find it interesting to see a term described as anti-racist in one cultural context being called racist in another.

I understand the difference between a semantic disagreement and a humanitarian crisis. The goal for civilized nations should be the preservation of life, especially when the stakeholders, including little children, are so vulnerable. I know of no ethical imperative that requires journalists to be objective in matters of life and death.

There is a tradition in both the Old and New Testaments (I can’t speak to the Koran) in which the deepest moral code involves caring, not just for the neighbor, but for the stranger. Whatever their differences, both refugee and migrant denote the stranger.  The best antidote is to write about them as people.