Refugees Vs. Migrants? The Word Choice Matters

What’s in a name? That is a question journalists, politicians and policymakers are asking themselves in addressing the Mediterranean refugee crisis. Although the terms “refugee” and “migrant” are often used interchangeably, the terms have very different meanings and attach different rights and responsibilities. As a result, it is important to understand what we are talking about when discussing how to deal with the crisis.

In the simplest terms, a migrant is a person who travels, often for work or economic reasons, while a refugee is a person fleeing armed conflict or prosecution. Thus while both migrants and refugees may leave their home country out of necessity, the rights they are entitled to vary depending on the reason for their departure.

The rights of refugees – and the responsibility of states towards them – are covered under the 1951 Refugee Convention. Article 1 of the convention (as amended in 1967) defines a refugee as:

A person who owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country; or who, not having a nationality and being outside the country of his former habitual residence as a result of such events, is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to return to it.

Although the definition is broad, there are many realities today that could not be foreseen in 1951. Over the last 75 years since the convention was first created to handle the influx of European refugees from World War II, the world has changed a lot. Some states have expanded their definition of refugees or asylum seekers to include women fleeing domestic violence or female genital mutilation, and there is a growing understanding that climate change refugees – or those who are forced to leave their home country due to inhabitability – will need to be covered under the convention in the future. However as some states expand their definition and the protection available for refugees, there are others that have narrowed the definition in an attempt to skirt the responsibility foreign governments have towards refugees.

This is where the debate over who is a migrant and who is a refugee comes into play. By calling people fleeing war “migrants”, politicians hope to downplay their responsibility in caring for them. Deporting a refugee is illegal under most circumstances and looks bad; deporting an unauthorized economic migrant is merely a state protecting its borders and economies from those who have no right to be there under domestic law.

This is why words matter. The majority of people reaching Europe’s shores are people fleeing war in Syria, Libya and Afghanistan, and to a lesser extent people fleeing gross human rights abuses in countries such as Eritrea. They are refugees. Although much like economic migrants they are in search of a better life, the fact that they are fighting for basic survival means that European countries have an obligation to uphold their rights as refugees and let them in, at least temporarily.

Al Jazeera’s online editor Barry Malone argued last month that the terminology we use goes beyond just legal considerations and also goes to what agency we give refugees when talking about the obstacles they are facing. By calling them migrants when they are clearly refugees takes away their voice, and makes it easier to ignore the problems they are fleeing. For those of us who write and talk about these issues, we have a responsibility to use the right terminology. With more refugees in the world today than any point since World War II, we are not facing a migrant crisis; we are facing a global refugee crisis that needs to be discussed.