An Open Letter to the New York Times Public Editor: Say “Refugees”

Dear Ms Sullivan:

I’m the editor of UN Dispatch, a blog about the United Nations and global affairs. I’ve closely followed the Times’ coverage of the refugee crisis in south eastern Europe. Times reporters have done a masterful job both distilling the major political and policy implications of this refugee wave and also offering a humanizing glimpse into the lives and struggles of families as they flee war for safer harbor in Europe.

But there is a problem. The Times has consistently and inaccurately referred to refugees as “migrants”

This story, for example, invokes the term “migrant” 32 times. The word “refugee” is never used.  The excellent “Reporters Notebook” series is a bit better in this regard, but still uses the term somewhat interchangeably.

There is a difference and it’s important. Indeed, Somini Sengupta of the Times posted a useful explainer of this difference, and why it matters. In brief: refugees are people fleeing war and conflict, and as such are afforded certain entitlements under the 1951 Refugee Convention. Migrants are people who are moving from one country to another for any other reason. The Syrians, Iraqis and Afghans who make up the vast majority of people  making their way up through southeastern Europe are refugees fleeing conflict. This makes them refugees, not migrants.

The implications of this word choice are profound. Governments have no international obligations to migrants and are free to block entry or repatriate them. A refugee, on the other hand, may not be blocked entry nor kicked out. Further, refugees are entitled to protection by the governments of the territories to which they have fled. This includes the provision of basic humanitarian services, physical security, and also access to the same civil rights generally afforded to other legal immigrants or foreign residents in that country.

By consistently using the term “migrant” as opposed to “refugee” the Times is being factually inaccurate. These words have two distinct meanings.  (And the Times is not alone here. Other media outlets have also used these terms interchangeably.) But this inaccuracy is not benign. Rather, this word choice is one factor that is enabling European governments to skirt their obligations under the 1951 Refugee Convention.

The Times coverage of the crisis in Southeastern Europe has been excellent. But the choice of words to describe people fleeing conflict ought to be more accurately refined.


Mark Leon Goldberg

editor, UN Dispatch