Why we should think twice before using the term ‘migrant’

October 20, 2022
Male asylum seekers as seen in abandoned old train carriages near Thessaloniki city. Photo by Nicolas Economou/NurPhoto via AP

Over the past month, the New York Times ran some twenty-two articles using the word “migrant” in headlines and leads, reflecting the prevailing usage on much of radio and television. Yet  many of the people in these stories are not migrants but asylum seekers or refugees—people escaping war, persecution, or local and lethal violence; people who cannot go home.

Obviously the word “migrant” has become popular because it is shorter and easier to use than the clumsy phrase “asylum seeker” and perhaps seems more neutral than the word “refugee.” But “migrant” is not neutral. A migrant is someone who is traveling to find better job opportunities and make money, while asylum seekers and refugees are people who are fleeing for their lives. Even more significantly, asylum seekers and refugees are entitled to legal procedures and protections that migrants are not.  

The anti-immigrant politicians of the world are well aware of this distinction and deliberately use the term “migrant” to whip up xenophobia, racism, and prejudice. A telling example can be seen in Greece, where so many people fleeing for their lives from Africa and the Middle East first try to enter the West. 

In a disturbing echo of the Trump administration’s antagonistic and often deadly policies toward refugees in the United States, the Nea Dimokratia (New Democracy) government of Greece, which came to power in 2019 mostly on an anti-immigrant platform, told the public that the majority of “migrants” in Greece only come to make money and so are not entitled to refugee protections. This declaration, which willfully ignored the reality that more than 75 percent of asylum seekers in Greece had in fact fled war or violence, not only served to whip up local resentment against refugees, but allowed the government to quickly strip away their rights. One of its first acts was to evict all refugees, even children, pregnant women, the elderly and the sick, from government-supported homes; cut off their cash allowances; and deny them free medical care except in emergencies—all of which refugees are entitled to under international law.

Even more dangerous than the use of the term “migrant” is the term “illegal immigrant.” It is not illegal to seek asylum, even if one is breaking local laws by entering a country without papers; it is a right, enshrined in the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights and in the UN’s 1951 Refugee Convention. By using the word “illegal,” journalists are perpetuating the fiction that asylum seekers are by definition criminals. The BBC is particularly fond of this phrase, with headlines such as “The dangers of illegal migration” and “Greece toughens policy on illegal immigrants,” the phrase repeated in the stories themselves and intermingled with the word “migrants.” These “migrants” are usually described as people “seeking a better life,” another phrase I hear often, when, in truth, many if not all of them are seeking a way to stay alive.

Journalists may also be embracing the word “migrant” because the legal definition of refugee is different from the common definition, which can be confusing. Legally speaking, someone is only a refugee after having been granted international protection by a government, while an asylum seeker is someone who requested but is still waiting for that protection. The popular definition, however, is much simpler. As the New Oxford American Dictionary tells us, “A refugee is a person who has been forced to leave their country in order to escape war, persecution, or natural disaster.”

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If that is who we are writing about, “refugee” is the word we should use. Not “migrant.”

Helen Benedict is a professor at Columbia’s Graduate School of Journalism and the author of Map of Hope and Sorrow: Stories of Refugees Trapped in Greece, co-written with Syrian writer and refugee Eyad Awwadawnan.