Photo credit: Mio Guziuk. Unsplash

FEW ISSUES are as charged with opinion as migration. It is a subject that divides and unites, fostering solidarity and discord in equal measure. But, in recent years, the language of migration has been subject to as much scrutiny as the issue itself.

At the forefront of this is the ‘refugee’ or ‘migrant’ debate. In 2015, as millions of people fled conflict in the Middle East, a discussion emerged over whether to refer to these people as ‘refugees’ or ‘migrants’.

This has been given fresh impetus recently by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Multiple media outlets have opted for ‘refugee’ when describing those fleeing the invasion, despite using ‘migrant’ in relation to people fleeing the Middle East; further complicating the often-blurred distinction between the two terms.

The language of migration is inherently complex, spanning legal, political and societal frameworks. But given the severe implications that word choice can have, it is a subject worthy of close examination.


 Although its dictionary definition covers all people who migrate, ‘migrant’ has come to mean a person who chooses to leave their country of origin to seek better economic opportunities elsewhere. It is a term loaded with negative connotations, frequently appearing beside words such as ‘jobs’ and ‘benefits’ due to a notion that migrants take from society without giving back.

With this in mind, its use in relation to people forced to flee can cause serious harm. As well as undermining public sympathy by conveying the idea that refugees are in fact economic migrants, it obscures the humanitarian need to provide protection.

This is arguably the most central criticism of the term. Given the harrowing circumstances that precipitate a person fleeing across borders, obfuscating the legal right to protection can have life-threatening consequences.

In 2015, this issue prompted Al Jazeera to announce that it would no longer refer to the ‘Mediterranean migrant crisis’, instead opting for ‘refugee crisis’. The main reason given was that ‘migrant’ has evolved from its dictionary definitions into a ‘blunt pejorative’ that ‘dehumanises and distances’.

There is much credence given to this argument. A 2018 study on the semantics of migration found that ‘migrant’ appears much more frequently beside ‘scum’ than ‘refugee’ does, substantiating the idea of it becoming a blunt pejorative.

The same study also found that labels conveying a degree of agency or opportunity – such as ‘migrant’ – are viewed more negatively than those describing people displaced by adverse situations – such as ‘refugee’. Given that labels frame the debate on how migration should be understood, the arguments against ‘migrant’ hold considerable weight.


But ‘refugee’ presents its own set of problems. Despite being used as a general term for people forced to flee, its legal definition is far more narrow.

According to the 1951 Refugee Convention, refugees are people who flee “due to a well-founded fear of persecution because of their race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion”.

 This precludes people fleeing environmental disasters, for example, from gaining access to the international protection system, prompting calls for the definition to be widened to encompass all people forced to flee.

However, this solution does little to address arguably the most prevalent criticism of ’refugee’ – the ‘good refugee’ versus ‘bad migrant’ dichotomy. By insisting that refugees are a different category of people (rather than a type of migrants), a person can unintentionally suggest that they are less deserving of protection.

This issue came to the fore in late 2021, when an inflatable boat sank in the Channel, killing 27 people. Priti Patel came under intense criticism for asserting – without evidence – that most people attempting to enter Britain by sea were “effectively economic migrants” rather than refugees, whom the UK would be obliged to protect. This was interpreted as her suggesting that their perceived status meant the incident was somehow less of a tragedy.

Reflecting on this, the use of ‘refugee’ – while well-intentioned – may inadvertently imply that migrants are less worthy of dignity and compassionate treatment.

One proposed solution is to reclaim the term ‘migrant’ and strip it of its harmful connotations. As argued by Judith Vonberg, ‘migrant’ should be accepted as a neutral descriptor which covers the situation of everyone who migrates.

Achieving this is easier said than done, however. As touched upon, many commentators have no issue with labelling people fleeing Ukraine as refugees, yet this does not extend to people of other nationalities. Perceived by some to be borne out of the legacy of racism, it reflects the persistent struggles surrounding the use of the term.

A ‘catch-all’ term?

To avoid these challenges, some analysts have proposed alternative terms. One is ‘forced migrant’, as it encompasses all people whose circumstances have compelled them to leave, not just legally-accepted refugees.

Similarly, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) has put forward ‘vulnerable migrants’. This attempts to sidestep the ‘good refugee’ versus ‘bad migrant’ dichotomy by focusing on the need to provide protection, irrespective of legal status.

Both of these terms are more inclusive than ‘refugee’. But crucially, they lack legal meaning. Without accompanying status, they do little to ensure that all people forced to flee receive adequate support.

 The terms can also be seen to categorise some forms of migration as voluntary and others as non-voluntary. The reality is far more complex. Economic migration is widely perceived as voluntary, but a person may leave their country because poverty prevents them from feeding their child.

Equally, a person may be forcibly displaced by conflict and take refuge in a neighbouring country, only to then decide to travel onwards to be with family. Migration is fluid and nuanced – motivations for migrating may change over the course of a journey. Categorising people in this way fails to account for this.

What these debates demonstrate is that words have impact. The language of migration is charged with meaning, and can have serious repercussions for the people being discussed. To avoid negative outcomes, a healthy and ongoing debate about the use of this language is crucial.


© Cameron Boyle is a media officer for a leading charity, and a Migrant Destitution Fund volunteer.