Published on 24 Aug 2015

Migrants or refugees: what’s the right word?

This weekend, after I reported on scenes of desperation at the Greece/Macedonia border as Syrians, Afghans and others scrambled to cross, there was nearly as much outrage about the use of language as the plight of the people.


I called them “refugees”, but the headline on our story used the word “migrant”, a catch-all term to describe all those trying to cross into the EU during this summer of mass movement.

Here’s a sample of the reaction:

The Oxford Dictionary defines a migrant as “a person who moves from one place to another in order to find work or better living conditions”. That sounds neutral, but the meaning has twisted in the eyes of many.

“It has evolved from its dictionary definitions into a tool that dehumanises and distances, a blunt pejorative,” wrote Barry Malone, the online editor of Al Jazeera, which no longer uses the term.

I hate to relinquish a useful word because others misinterpret it but I’m struggling with this one. Most of the people I met on the train from the Macedonian town of Gevgelija to the Serbian border were Syrians, fleeing places torn apart by Bashar al Assad’s barrel bombs or the predations of the Islamic State.

In my book, they’re refugees (more on that definition later). But what about the three Nigerians who had been working as cleaners in Istanbul, lost their jobs, and were heading north looking for better opportunities? They claimed they were fleeing Boko Haram, but they came from the capital, Abuja, not the area controlled by the jihadis, so that would be like fleeing France because of the Charlie Hebdo attacks.

By the dictionary definition, then, they’re migrants. I see no shame in that – I too have travelled looking for work and adventure. But when I lived in Kenya in the 1980s, cobbling together a living as a freelance journalist, people called me an ‘expat’ not a migrant. The latter word is rarely used for people from wealthy western countries.

Let’s go back to the beginning. If it weren’t for migration, humankind would never have have colonised the earth – God said “go forth and multiply”, he didn’t say “whatever you do, stay put and, if you must have kids, don’t leave the Garden of Eden or surrounding neighbourhood”.

Since then, everyone has moved everywhere and DNA tests show that we all have mixed ancestry. But, as EU citizens see their privileges and benefits increasingly restricted, they fear there’s not enough to go round.

That’s not unreasonable, but nor is it a licence to dehumanise those who embody our fears. The Nigerians on the train and other West Africans I met in the Misrata detention centre in Libya are economic migrants. I think they should go home and build their own countries – it’s not practical for everyone to come to Europe. But they’re humans, and they’re doing what humans have always done, so why should they be despised?

As for Syrians, most initially went to Turkey, Jordan or Lebanon but those countries can’t cope with the 4 million who have arrived.

According to EU regulations, refugees should claim asylum in the first EU country they reach, so for Syrians that usually means Greece but it can’t cope either, and richer countries –  with the notable exception of Germany – are refusing to establish organised programmes of resettlement.

Many Syrians I’ve met fled thinking they’d be able to go home after a few weeks or months, but as the war shows no sign of easing, they see the rest of their lives stretching ahead. Their houses have been destroyed and family members killed. They want their children to study and work not sit around idle in a tent forever. So of course they try to get to the EU illegally if the EU refuses to admit more than handful by legal means.

Back to the terminology. Migrant shouldn’t be a term of abuse, but increasingly it’s seen that way so I personally am going to stop using it except when there’s really no alternative. Refugee I will use as I always do to describe someone fleeing conflict, however many countries they’ve passed through.

And when I’m not sure, because I don’t know the whole story, I think I might just call them people. Because that’s what they are, whatever the motive for their journey.

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20 reader comments

  1. Viv Thorpe says:

    Well said Lindsey! Always enjoy your informed reporting. We were annoyed last night by the use of the word migrant.

  2. JPM1952 says:

    The real word is “people” …. as Burns said ..

    “Then let us pray that come it may,
    As come it will for a’ that,
    That Sense & Worth o’er a’ the Earth
    Shall bear the gree an’ a’ that.
    For a’ that and a’ that,
    It’s coming yet for a’ that
    That Man to Man the world o’er,
    Shall brithers be for a’ that”

    Sadly a LONG way to go for many people in the “United Kingdom”

  3. John Hill says:

    The dictionary definition is CORRECT!!
    It is the media reaction to a “story” that is wrong!
    Britain has had migrants coming into the country since the Romans!

    My dad was a migrant…he came from Ireland…!
    He was intelligent, educated and took up a responsible job at a time (1940s) when migrants were appreciated, even encouraged.

    As his son, my suggestion is that media, inc Ch 4, concentrate on the Barbarians who have caused this crisis in the first place!

    (Perhaps the EU should construct a city in the desert of N Africa with all modern amenities, roads railways hospitals Secular government etc., and allow the refugees from modern fascist barbarity a chance to appreciate our decency and toleration without them having to swim the mediterranean?

    (Of course there would have to be NO MOSQUES in our created city, but if EU cannot cope with people fleeing religious oppression, we either have to destroy that oppression, or create a stronghold sanctuary which it cannot contaminate.

    (Also those sheltered in the N Africa EU city could militarily prevent the Islamic crazies from, destroying ancient cultural traces just because the barbarians have no culture themselves??)
    My idea is at least as sensible as barbarity and war.

    Also Ch 4, during WWII Propaganda was used to help defeat an earlier set of barbarians…perhaps modern media could try that!! It beats just wringing collective hands!!

  4. Alan says:

    I am deeply, deeply ashamed at the poor response of our government in the UK. These people need our help NOW! Some time in the future we may need theirs, and I hope if that time comes they show more humanity than we appear to have.

    A terrible situation made worse by our lack of proper response.

  5. Adrian Waters says:

    I have no problem with the word migrant. Its meaning is what you quote from the dictionary. Why should one not move in order to better oneself and give their family a better life? Once settled in another country, they will pay taxes and, most likely, remit money to their kin back home, benefiting their origin and destination countries.

  6. mervyn johnson says:

    The huge numbers of migrants/refugees pouring into Europe will impact on social structures. Where are these people going to live? What work is there for them? Germany have taken in over 800,000 so far, how many are being relocated in Romania and Bulgaria? The problems will escalate as more flood into Europe, and find that there is little work, and even less money available.
    The EU leaders have no answer, no solutions to stemming this unprecedented flow of people.

    1. mahesh says:

      i m very sure that these migrants/refugees whatever u call will disturb the socio-economic fabric of EU countries.Being indian we have suffered from bangladeshi migrants but i dont understnad why these refugees are going only in europe and not in turkey/egypt/saudi arabia.Is there any deliberate attempt by forcing them into europe.see islamist have believed in one philosophy that in order to get control of any country u have to attack them by using all means & if enemy is not defeated in war then they try to increase their population in that region by all possible ways.this way they can control that region politically and demographically.i can see this is happening soon in EU n particularly in England and France.

  7. matt says:

    I’m a migrant by your definition. I moved to NZ with my family from the UK and found a better standard of living. But the more I see it what the UK is becoming the more I feel like an asylum seeker. These poor souls are human beings, people with hopes, fears and aspirations regardless of motive and Europe needs to welcome them with warmth and love just as NZ welcomed us.

  8. Elizabeth says:

    I agree with your comments. Especially, those relating to our ancestors being migrants. I also agree that there are many xenophobic people who have adopted the word to encourage hatred in others. Yet they easily or conveniently forget of the fact that we are descendants of migrants. Whether they be Roman, Saxon or Viking. Also we are only 20 miles away from the continent. In the past sailing was one of the safest ways to travel. We also had the British empire and our English language being one of the most spoken languages in the world. We also accept cheap goods from countries that have no health and safety at work laws and the workers work for pittance. Not forgetting that we have accepted many foreign things. Like our national drink tea. Also was not the Duke of Edinburgh a refugee or son of refugees from Greece.

    1. Sam says:

      Elizabeth, how do you know that all foreign goods are produced without health and safety rules. This is where you showed your ignorance. The reason they are cheap is because everything is so expensive over here. So be greatful, not scathing. As an engineer, I have seen immaculate factories in many of these countries, which is rarely shown on British TV, this is why you are assuming. If you are so concerned then don’t buy these products.
      On refugees, our government has created this crisis by sponsoring the violence there. Our bloody history is full of divide and conquer, Why doesn’t Hilsum properly report on the before and after, in all these countries that we have destroyed. Also, tell us of the advancement of America’s global footprint, because she too works to a narrative.

  9. joanna nicholls says:

    I agree with much of what you say. But I wonder how problems in the Middle East will ever be solved if all those with the money to pay smugglers are running away. They leave the poor and helpless behind with even less chance of resolution. The Kurds have stayed to fight for their lands and establish stable governments.
    There is also the danger that EU countries will become de-stabilized by such a huge number coming in. Not to mention the risk that (among the refugees) there may well be terrorists.

  10. Bob says:

    It’s like a lot of things- an impossible situation with no real solution and it will get worse

  11. Roland says:

    It is the left and how they love creating “narratives” and treating readers like children or morons. The proper term is “illegal immigrants” , or “fortune seekers”. They are people who have no right to be in a certain country and enter illegally and uninvited in order to improve their standard of living hence fortune seekers. Refugees are people who flee war or persecution , they go to refugee camps and return once it is safe or fighting has ended. Migrants are people who legally settle in a foreign country. So if I went to work in the United Kingdom , or if I married a British person and moved to the UK to live with her I would be a migrant.

    1. Ben Gulliford says:

      Wow I bet parties really pick up when you arrive.If your ancestors hadn’t migrated north you could be in the boats risking your life while some smug westerners labels you a fortune seeker.
      Actually you wouldn’t risk your own life Roland ,that special attitude you showed in your suggests you would claim the driest spot before using the air of superiority you obviously feel to explain how it’s their fault they are wet.
      If it’s that superiority you seek then might I suggest motivational speaking before Mr. Labeuf corners the market on telling everyone to DO IT repeatedly.

  12. SUZANNE says:

    people do not understand the differences between those seeking asylum, those that do and become refugees, and those who are coming from somewhere else in general and are described in a catch all phrase “migrants”. only £refugee” seems to elicit sympathy from most people. that is why when we founded our organisation on asylum issues we use the words “seeking sanctuary” to accurately describe what asylum seekers are doing.
    We are “Liberal Democrats for Seekers of Sanctuary” @LD4SOS

  13. Philip says:

    People. It’s a disgrace that some many people & much of the media have an empathy deficit. Indeed, you could say that the UK suffers generally from EDS – empathy deficit syndrome.

  14. Andrew Dundas says:

    Everywhere I go, I’m always a migrant. That’s because I was born during the war and have no ‘home town’. My mother was born in India. Does that make her a migrant into our country?
    Here in sparsely populated Scotland, in-comers from elsewhere are regarded as migrants. Which makes for some equality of sorts for the one-in-ten of us hereabouts who weren’t born in Scotland.
    I’m in excellent company: our Queen is the descendent of in-comers: the Hanoverians and Saxe-Coburgs. Moreover, the Queen is married to a descendant of the Greek monarchy, Philip von Battenberg. We are, after all, a nation of immigrants.
    Is Her Majesty’s ancestry that of a descended of migrants or refugees? Perhaps it doesn’t matter?

  15. Emily Copley says:

    “And when I’m not sure, because I don’t know the whole story, I think I might just call them people. Because that’s what they are, whatever the motive for their journey.”

    Explore the ‘people’ behind the media terminology in our upcoming short film screening at Bertha DocHouse, Curzon Bloomsbury. DocHouse Shorts: The Land Between Us – A series of short films that look beneath the surface of global diaspora and ‘migration’ to Europe.

    Find out more here and joint he debate: http://bit.ly/1J9Y0t5

  16. Jessica says:

    They can only be called invaders.

  17. Ben Gulliford says:

    On the 6 o’clock news on BBC the presenter (phew one term right) asked a reporter continual questions about migrants,this was compounded by the reporter steadfastly calling the people refugees. At no point did either stop using obviously different terms despite hearing the other.
    So obviously while I’m respectful of the Channel 4 coverage, if 2 journalists talking to each other can’t pick the same term and then are doing this on one of the most watched bulletins on the BBC the mistitled refugees (Migrant swarm is exactly the loaded phrase I’d expect from this government) Articles like this will at least show the difference and has helped brush up my understanding of the differences to pass on (my first attempt to show someone the difference was like trying to explain the offside rule while having no short term memory.
    We are the product of migration and it is our duty as humans to help those in need.

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