The Politics of Naming Refugees

Marta Santiváñez

My mother used to warn me that it didn’t matter what I say, but that I ought to always be careful of what I wrote, for writing stays. In research, as in reporting, I come across questions of terminology on a regular basis, and the choices I make when naming carry political significance. Words are not value-free; they fix narratives into consciousness, and consciousness into prejudice.

The summer of 2015 continues to be remembered for its news cycle, overflowing with stories of what would come to be known as the ‘migrant crisis’ -  an intake of people into European countries deemed unparalleled since the end of World War II (Park, 2015). That August, Al Jazeera’s Barry Malone (2015) published a piece advocating to end the use of the word ‘migrant’ to refer to those trying to enter into Europe in favour of the rights-granting term ‘refugee’. Words, he argued, matter, and these refugees’ plight for protection had to be acknowledged as rightful in the terms used to describe them.

Along with a long list of left-leaning media, I was quick to jump to this semantical frenzy. I know I didn’t, but I do wonder if Malone realized, at that point, the significance this change in terminology would have in the public discourse surrounding migrants, refugees, and their right to claim rights. The choices we make in writing, it turns out, are more consequential than I initially thought.

The term “refugee” as a signifier of identity has changed over time as the result of politics and policy dynamics. According to Kate Long (2013), in the early 20th century ‘refugee’ was a way to refer to surplus population, including unemployed nationals: simply, people allowing for the creation of labour flows and economic development. At the time, refugees were welcomed across Europe as drivers of growth. As the Great Depression travelled into the Old Continent in the 1930s, countries began to stop people at the border to protect their labour markets. Later into the decade, protection for refugees fleeing genocide remained off the table.

The post-war definition of refugee aimed to remedy this issue by establishing protection for people fleeing persecution, eventually resulting in the UN Convention and posterior Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees of 1951 and 1967. The politics of the Convention are often disguised under a veil of international human rights: protection against persecution would be assured, but never at the expense of retrieving national sovereignty from the receiving states. The definition of refugees is, to this day, extremely limited: a refugee is a person who fears persecution for reasons of race, nationality, religion, political opinion or membership to a particular social group (UN General Assembly, 1967).

Definitions are necessary and meaningful. The UN’s definition of refugee created a binary structure of either/or. People could flee their country due to persecution, in which case they deserved protection under international law, or not, in which case they became mere migrants. Subsidiary protection, a distinct legal status, was created to allow protection for people fleeing conflict, as they do not fall within the definition of refugee. International agreements have been accepted and naturalised, and the terms’ constraints have been ‘fetishised’, in political science jargon (Apostolova, 2015). A natural distinction between refugee and migrant problematizes the recognition of those not specifically addressed through the label of ‘refugee’, such as economic migrants or victims of climate disasters, who fall between the cracks of irregular migration. As a consequence, the definition of refugee “asserts that economic hardship is somehow separate from political disenfranchisement and persecution” (Gessen, 2018). This natural distinction fails to recognize the complex and nuanced stories that follow migrants all around the globe. We have become blind to the political and temporal character of the definitions we ascribe in the international community.

Beyond long-form articles and academic analysis, this distinction carries severe consequences in regards to social perceptions across countries of immigration. The naturalization of a concrete definition of ‘refugee’ as the only label to use for those who ‘truly deserve to come in’ has negatively affected the perception of all other migrants. As progressive cities like London, Madrid and Berlin continue to spread out banners to ‘welcome refugees’, the countries that host them update their immigration acts and encourage an increasingly more hostile environment for their non-refuge-seeking migrants.

As asylum is raised as a political issue, hostility towards other migrants comes into the scene, and the challenges faced by one type of migrant over the other become problematized through misunderstandings of legal statuses and race relations (Mulvey, 2010, p. 450). Choosing to use the word ‘refugee’ over ‘migrant’, perhaps inadvertently, has created an outlet to criminalize individuals based on their race, nationality and religion, qualifiers that are tied to legal status and the right to remain in a given country. As immigration becomes increasingly categorized, some categories gain preferential status over the others, and their use becomes increasingly more connected to a perception of ‘good’ or ‘bad’ migrant.

Think of the change in discourse surrounding Syrian refugees in contrast with attitudes towards ‘other migrants’. When the summer of 2015 reached its end and media outlets began to refuse the word “migrant”, many others highlighted the economic benefits that the ‘crisis’ could lead to in the middle to long term, as newcomers began to work and contribute with their taxes. An outpour of support infused social media sites and activist campaigns alike in the aftermath of Alan Kurdi’s death (Devichand, 2016; Vis and Goriunova, 2015), leading among other policy advances to the Syrian Vulnerable Persons Resettlement Scheme in the UK (BBC News, 2015). However, much of this public support was directed towards “the remnants of Syria’s middle class: doctors, engineers, and teachers fleeing Assad’s barrel bombs in Aleppo, or the reign of terror ushered by the Islamic State” (Proctor, 2015), as the type of migrants that would be more likely to integrate.

Canada, where Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has been applauded for hugging refugees as they arrive to their international airports, has shown a much more reluctant response to the hundreds of Haitians and Nigerians who are attempting to enter the country via its southern border (Samuel, 2018). In the Spanish territories in North Africa, it has been reported that Syrians and Palestinians can easily approach the asylum post at the border, while black Sub-Saharan Africans are detained walking down the street in Morocco (Domínguez, 2016). Is it a long stretch to suggest that perceptions of wealth, race or class - ‘the Syrian middle class’ in contrast with poor Sub-Saharan Africans or Central Americans -, may be behind this trend?

It makes sense to distinguish between ‘migrant’ and ‘refugee’ because one category enforces a type of protection that not every migrant needs. It could be argued that the limitations of the term ‘refugee’ are the price to pay to have some sort of international protection to offer, and perhaps the argument could be accepted if the system at least worked. Yet ‘refugees’ are also left unprotected amid underfunded institutions at the point of entry; faced with legal impediments to seek refuge at embassies and consulates, forcing asylum seekers into the hands of smugglers; compelled into a hazardous quest through illegal routes that often leads to death.

Reclaiming the use of the word ‘refugee’ was an attempt at disrupting a narrative that pushed away people seeking protection and the opportunity of a better life. It was a good attempt at using terms properly, but one that disregarded its potential negative implications, and helped turn the word ‘migrant’ dirty. In writing, words allow us to transcend concrete ideas and to peak into the abstract, to debate and to consider. In writing we make politics, and it wouldn’t do us any good to dwell in questions of semantics, but neither do we benefit from ignoring the impact of the words we use. Awareness is different from obsession, and our discourse is bettered when we reflect on the concepts we have normalized and accepted. As human rights advocates, we need to heighten our awareness of these issues, to ensure protection is granted to all who need it, to fight oppression and discrimination.


This article has been adapted from a longer essay submitted for academic review.


Work Cited

Apostolova, R. (2015). Of Refugees and Migrants: Stigma, Politics, and Boundary Work at the Borders of Europe. Retrieved from: https://asaculturesection.org/2015/09/14/of-refugees-and-migrants-stigma-politics-and-boundary-work-at-the-borders-of-europe/

Domínguez, I. (2016). España no es país para refugiados (ni quiere serlo). El País. Retrieved from: https://elpais.com/politica/2016/04/28/actualidad/1461845259_323652.html

Gessen, M. (2018). Trump’s Asylum Proclamation and the False Distinction Between “Migrant” and “Refugee.” The New Yorker. Retrieved from: https://www.newyorker.com/news/our-columnists/trumps-asylum-proclamation-and-the-false-distinction-between-migrant-and-refugee

Long, K. (2013). When refugees stopped being migrants: Movement, labour and humanitarian protection. Migration Studies, 1(1), 4–26.

Malone, B. (2015). Why Al Jazeera will not say Mediterranean “migrants.” Al Jazeera. Retrieved from https://www.aljazeera.com/blogs/editors-blog/2015/08/al-jazeera-mediterranean-migrants-150820082226309.html

Mulvey, G. (2010). When Policy Creates Politics: the Problematizing of Immigration and the Consequences for Refugee Integration in the UK. Journal of Refugee Studies, 23(4), 437–462.

Park, J. (2015). Europe’s Migration Crisis. Retrieved from: https://www.cfr.org/backgrounder/europes-migration-crisis

Proctor, K. (2015, September 15). Syria’s refugees are a golden opportunity for Europe. Fortune. Retrieved from: http://fortune.com/2015/09/15/syria-refugees-europe/

Samuel, S. (2018). ‘There’s a Perception That Canada Is Being Invaded.’ The Atlantic. Retrieved from: https://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2018/05/theres-a-perception-that-canada-is-being-invaded/561032/

UN General Assembly. (1967). Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees. United Nations Treaty Series.