Refugees vs. Migrants: What’s the Right Term to Use?

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Refugees and migrants are guarded by police officers Friday as they wait to board a bus at a collection point in Röszke, Hungary. Laszlo Balogh/Reuters

Updated | Are they refugees or are they migrants?

As thousands of people, mostly from war-torn countries in the Middle East, such as Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan, continue to make the dangerous seabound journey to safety in Europe, news organizations and the public have grappled with what to call them.

In July, António Guterres, the U.N. high commissioner for refugees, said the crisis unfolding in Europe is primarily one of refugees “seeking protection from war and persecution.” Of the more than 380,000 people who have entered Europe by sea this year, 50 percent are from Syria, where more than 4 million refugees have fled since civil war erupted in 2011.

More than 80 percent of those arriving in Europe are from the world’s top 10 refugee-producing countries, including Afghanistan and Eritrea, according to UNHCR.  

Many news outlets have continued to use the words “refugee” and “migrant” interchangeably, a practice UNHCR advises against. Refugees are defined by the U.N. as “persons fleeing armed conflict or persecution,” while a migrant is someone who chooses to leave his or her home country for reasons related to work, family reunification or education. The problem when it comes to definitions is that both refugees and economic migrants have crossed into Europe this year, often in the same small boats.

To deal with the issue of the small number of economic migrants entering Europe alongside people genuinely seeking refuge from violent and oppressive conditions at home, European leaders plan to establish a list of “safe countries of origin” when they hold a meeting later this month, allowing them to make the distinction between people who cannot go home and those able to return to stable countries.

The situation for refugees “is often so perilous and intolerable that they cross national borders to seek safety in nearby countries, and thus become internationally recognized as ‘refugees’ with access to assistance from States, UNHCR, and other organizations,” UNHCR’s Adrian Edwards wrote in a blog post last month.

“They are so recognized precisely because it is too dangerous for them to return home, and they need sanctuary elsewhere,” wrote Edwards. “These are people for whom denial of asylum has potentially deadly consequences.”

Unlike migrants, refugees—there were 19.4 million in 2014, according to UNHCR—also come under the protection of a number of international treaties, including the 1951 Refugee Convention and the 1975 OAU Convention on refugees in Africa. The 1951 Refugee Convention was originally intended for refugees in Europe fleeing from events related to World War II, but was amended in 1967 to remove geographical boundaries. It clearly states that “subject to specific exceptions, refugees should not be penalized for their illegal entry or stay” in safe countries and should not return to countries where they fear being persecuted or killed.

“Conflating refugees and migrants can have serious consequences for the lives and safety of refugees. Blurring the two terms takes attention away from the specific legal protections refugees require,” wrote Edwards. “It can undermine public support for refugees and the institution of asylum at a time when more refugees need such protection than ever before.”

Internet users are now searching for “refugee” more than “migrant,” according to Google Trends data. Throughout 2015, searches for “refugee” remained slightly higher than “migrant,” but searches for “refugee” spiked in early September, around the time that distressing photos of 3-year-old Syrian refugee Aylan Kurdi, who drowned with his brother and mother while trying to reach Greece from Turkey, were published.

News organizations have been paying attention to public sentiment. Last month, Al Jazeera English announced it would stop using the term migrant, as it “is no longer fit for purpose when it comes to describing the horror unfolding in the Mediterranean,” Barry Malone, an online editor at Al Jazeera, wrote in a blog post.  

“It has evolved from its dictionary definitions into a tool that dehumanises and distances, a blunt pejorative,” Malone wrote.

Peter Goodman, global editor-in-chief for the International Business Times (which together with Newsweek is owned by IBT Media), tweeted earlier this month that his publication would stop referring to Europe’s “migrant crisis” because “most of these people are seeking refuge in any common sense usage of [the] word.” But for Mark Memmott, NPR standards editor, “migrants” is the best fit when the specifics of each person’s story are unknown to reporters. The BBC uses “migrant crisis,” although an online petition to get the organization to replace it with “refugee crisis” has garnered nearly 72,000 signatures, just shy of its 75,000 goal.

Alexander Betts, a professor of refugee and forced migration studies at Oxford University, said that while describing the situation in Europe as a “migrant crisis” is less accurate than “refugee crisis,” there is still value in using the term “migrant.”

“It is a useful umbrella term that simply describes people who move across borders for a certain period of time,” Betts told Newsweek. “Migrants also have human rights, and they risk being sidelined if the public begins to see refugees as ‘worthy’ and migrants as ‘unworthy.’”  

Increased public interest in the situation in Europe has also piqued the interest of U.S. politicians. Earlier this week, Connecticut Senator Chris Murphy criticized the current U.S. response to the crisis and suggested the U.S. take around 50,000 Syrian refugees instead of the 5,000 to 8,000 the country said it would take. (The White House announced Thursday that the U.S. will resettle 10,000 Syrian refugees in 2016.) Democratic presidential candidate Martin O’Malley last week called on the U.S. to accept 65,000 Syrian refugees, a number proposed by the International Rescue Committee, a nonprofit that helps to resettle refugees.

While economic migrants are among those making the exodus to Europe, their numbers are small. Most of those who have traveled in often-flimsy boats to Greece, been confronted with riot police and tear gas in Macedonia and Serbia, become trapped in a train station in Hungary before making a final push on foot to Austria and Germany, had no choice but to leave their homes.

“Looking at the situation [in] countries these people are coming from, it is clear that most of them are simply running for their lives,” says Karin de Gruijl, spokesperson for UNHCR.

Note: Newsweek uses the term “refugees and migrants” in circumstances where it’s possible both groups are traveling together. When referring to people originating from certain war-torn countries—such as Syria or Iraq—and crossing international borders, we use the term “refugees,” e.g. “Syrian refugees.”

This article has been updated to include the information that Newsweek and the International Business Times are both owned by IBT Media.

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