On Migrants, Refugees and Language

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By Laura Madokoro

Amidst the evolving coverage about the refugees from Syria, there has been a lot of discussion about what term best describes the people who are leaving their homes, taking to boats, and attempting to make their way to Europe.

Editors at Al Jazeera sparked the discussion on 20 August 2015, when they announced that they would no longer use the term “migrant” to describe the departing Syrians. Barry Malone explained the term migrant had “evolved from its dictionary definitions into a tool that dehumanises and distances, a blunt pejorative.”[i] Taking issue with the “umbrella term” for allegedly “diminishing” and erasing the complexities of a very difficult situation, Al Jazeera posited that by using the term refugee, where appropriate, it could counter the conflation of “migrants” with “nuisance” and give “voice” back to the people making the headlines. Al Jazeera’s effort to humanize its coverage should be applauded but the network’s stand is not without complexities of its own.

My own research focuses work on the history of humanitarian assistance, migration and refugeehood. Scholars describe refugeehood as the act of becoming a refugee through various political processes, e.g. the labeling by media, or governmental policies.[ii] The thinking is that there is no essential quality that makes someone a refugee but rather they come to be identified as a refugee, largely through political circumstances (and I would add self-identification). In contrast to Al Jazeera’s strategy, my approach to studying the history of refugeehood has been to refer to people as migrants, not refugees. My reasons for doing so are rooted in efforts amongst scholars to correct the impression that migration is a one way, permanent phenomenon. It is also a response to the historiographical literature that privileges government narratives of welcome and assistance over personal stories of migration. And it is, ultimately, as an effort to shed light on the relatively recent development of migration categories, which often obscure the broader forces at play in the history of global migration.

Let me elaborate.

Conventional studies of migration use the terms immigrant and emigrant. These terms suggest clear points of arrival and departure. For many, this is the reality of how they move today and how people have moved in the past. Yet for a vast many others, departure was not, and is not, a one-time event. People often move again and again. Sometimes within national borders, and sometimes beyond. One of the ways scholars have sought to capture this movement is to talk about migrants, not immigrants or emigrants. Beyond this, the term migrant is useful because it can help illuminate the various factors that shape the perceptions, including self-perceptions, of the refugee experience in a way that goes beyond narrow legal definitions of a refugee.

The English-language term refugee first came into popular use in 1685 following the persecution and flight of the French Huguenots to England. The term refugee began to be used more frequently in the twentieth century, coinciding with the growth of national borders, international organizations and legal instruments to protect, and assist, displaced persons.[iii] During this time, refugees went from being described according to ethnicity (as in the case of Armenians and Russian refugees under the terms of the League of Nations) to being defined on the basis of their individual experiences as reflected in the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, still in operation today. With the development of the 1951 Convention the international community signed on to a very specific definition of a refugee. Specifically, a refugee is considered an individual who:

owing to 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.

To meet the definition, and to be eligible for protection, people also had to be outside their country of origin. The UNHCR has compensated for this by broadening its work to Internally Displaced Persons (people still within their national borders, estimated at 38 million in 2014) but the categorical confusion remains.

The Convention definition of a refugee was penned in the context of the Second World War (specifically, the sense that the international community had failed Jewish refugees) and the heightened tensions of the early cold war.[iv] The Convention’s drafters imagined refugees to be individuals persecuted by communist and fascist regimes. The Convention (and the 1967 amending Protocol) narrowed the legal definition of a refugee at the same time that it broadened the responsibility of signatories to accept people who presented themselves for protection. The principle of non-refoulement, enshrined in the Convention, prevents states from returning an individual to a situation where they might face persecution. In terms of language, the major change was the emergence of a distinction between Convention refugees and other kinds of refugees, such as those displaced by environmental disasters. Much of the current confusion around language emerges from the fact that the narrow Convention definition does not capture the breadth of displacement issues, nor was it intended to do so.[v]

The work on defining a refugee, and codifying responsibilities towards refugees, occurred simultaneously with the growing bureaucratization and regulation of migration, a process that began in the late 19th century and intensified after the Second World War. The result is that today there exists an incredibly complex mix of national and international systems for managing migration and an almost endless number of categories intended to govern the permanent and temporary admission of migrants. In Canada alone, the categories of Family Class, Skilled Workers, Entrepreneurs, Canadian Experience Class, Live-in Caregivers Temporary Foreign Workers, and Refugee immediately come to mind. What is perhaps most striking is how little these categories tell us about the experience and life histories of the people who moved through them. People migrated based on opportunity and the categories available to them, not because they were defined by these categories in some essential way. Until there were official refugee categories in Canada, for instance, people migrated in other “streams” (a lovely governmental term that suggests a categorical tidiness that simply did not exist).

This is especially true of the people who were resettled to Canada as refugees after the Second World War (distinct from those who made requests for asylum at the border and were admitted as Convention refugees after 1969). The 36,000 refugees who were resettled from Hungary in 1956, for instance, were selected under the terms of the immigration program then in operation. Immigration officers assessed individual cases and measured the applicant’s desirability on the basis of the labour market, whether or not they had any relatives in Canada and, additionally, on humanitarian and compassionate grounds. There was no such thing as a refugee category. The same holds true for the way the Canadian government admitted 12,000 refugees from Czechoslovakia in 1968. It wasn’t what people were called that led to their admission, but rather their capacity to “successfully establish themselves” (to use the language of the day), their perceived need and, in the context of these early resettlement efforts, their potential influence in the battle over hearts and minds in the global cold war. Critically, these cases are regularly highlighted as evidence of Canada’s humanitarian tradition with little attention to how most of the individuals who came were also skilled workers or had relatives in Canada. In other words, they could have very easily been admitted under another migration category (worker or family sponsorship) but because of the context of the time and the sense of crisis that attended their movements, they were admitted as refugees, and remembered as such.

Historically, the public emphasis on an individual or group’s refugee character, especially by advocates and governments, was due in large part to the need to convince sceptical publics about the benefit of accepting and resettling refugees. To this end, migrants were portrayed as refugees who were absolutely desperate and in need of assistance. While this was often the case, it was equally true that those who were capable of crossing international borders did so because of their skills, social intelligence (meaning that they were able to gather critical information from others) and financial, familial and community resources. The commemoration of previous refugee movements generally ignores this aspect of the migratory experience. And even when it is recognized, it is often framed in the context of eternal gratitude to the people and governments who ultimately provided refuge.[vi] Acknowledging the need for assistance as well as an individual’s resilience and resources is, admittedly, a very delicate balance to strike. Critically, given the current debate over language, it is one that is consistently jettisoned in favour of making appeals, such as Al Jazeera’s, on the basis of the emotional appeal of the term refugee.

In my opinion, discussing refugees (however narrowly or broadly defined) as migrants brings to the fore the ways in which people have understood their own movement, as well as the ways in which their stories have been understood by their contemporaries and by historians, can be better discerned. Why was someone called a refugee in 1956 but not in 1856? Why would someone reject the moniker of refugee in 1945 but embrace it in 2015? With such questions, language becomes an opening in which to understand the growth of national borders, the desire of governments to use immigration as a way of fostering belonging and inclusion, as well as pursuing exclusion. Language also becomes a way of interrogating national narratives that emphasize the permanence of movement.

Al-Jazeera’s announcement sparked a great deal of commentary, from other news outlets, from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNCHR), and from one American, who having moved to England twenty years ago, declares himself an “immigrant” and contests the apparent neutrality of the term “migrant”. There is no one answer to the question of what term should be used precisely because of the complexity of the situation in Syria. What the discussion does do, however, is remind us about the importance of context and the impossibility of a neutral term in discussions of contemporary, and historic, migration.

Laura Madokoro is an assistant professor of history at McGill University.



[i] The Oxford English Dictionary defines a migrant as “one who moves, either temporarily or permanently, from one place, area, or country of residence to another”.

[ii] Nezvat Soguk, States and Strangers: Refugees and Displacement of Statecraft (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1999), 15.

[iii] I also have reservations about the language around displacement for it suggests that an individual’s natural position is to be “in place’. Given the history of global mobility, I am not convinced that this is at all the normative experience and that movement, however forced or free, should be considered an anomaly.

[iv] Daniel Cohen, In War’s Wake: Europe’s Displaced Persons in the Postwar Order (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011).

[v] Subsequent instruments such as the 1969 Convention governing the Specific Aspects of Refugee Problems in Africa (Organization of the African Union) and the 1984 Cartagena Declaration on Refugees (Latin America) have broadened the refugee definition in specific circumstances.

[vi] Denise Chong tries to capture both aspects of this story in The Girl in the Picture: The Story of Kim Phuc, The Photograph and the Vietnam War (Toronto: Penguin Books, 2001).

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