Yes, we should use ‘refugee’ not ‘migrant’—but no word can escape racism

This image was removed due to legal reasons.

Al Jazeera made a thoughtful decision this week to use the term "refugees" as opposed to "migrants" to refer to the hundreds of thousands of people seeking asylum in Europe this year. The argument—which is resonating in the media's more insightful corners—is that "migrant" has come to function as a "blunt pejorative," dismissing the plight of people who have risked possible death crossing the Mediterranean Sea to escape impossible lives under civil war, as in Syria, or dictatorship, as in Eritrea. "Refugee" is not only more accurate and (hopefully) humanizing, as Al Jazeera argues, but it emphasizes where the onus of responsibility must now lie: on the countries where refuge is sought.


I immediately distrust anyone who dismisses an argument as "just semantics." The issue at hand here is important precisely because it is semantic. It takes seriously the point that we don't just use language to describe the world but to break up and shape the world. The semantic act of choosing "refugee" is a political act.

Al Jazeera's reasoning focuses on how the terms used frame how the refugee populations are seen and treated, and that "migrant" has become dangerously reductive. Many publications had opted for "migrant" as the most neutral term available, since "refugee" implies a status conferred by international law, for which not every displaced person in the current crisis in the Med might qualify (although the majority would). "Migrant" has indeed become increasingly pejorative, aided by the pernicious rhetoric which has accompanied the term in recent months. British Prime Minister David Cameron outrageously described the estimated 3,000 people living in camps in Calais, France—largely from Syria, Eritrea, Afghanistan and Somalia—as a "swarm" of migrants. British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond warned of "desperate [African] migrants marauding" around Europe. Such language unequivocally frames "migrant" as the threatening, not the threatened, subject.

It's arguable that we should resist the shift of "migrant" into a pejorative label. There's a power in reclaiming terms that have been appropriated for racist purposes. But if, at best, "migrant" could be reclaimed as a neutral term—conjuring no metaphors of insects or invading hordes—it is still less useful in this context than "refugee." Refugee is not neutral; it signifies need. Not every person fleeing the Middle East and Africa by treacherous Mediterranean passage leaves in the same or equal position of duress. Although, I submit, no one choosing the sort of journey that has seen 3,573 drown in 12 months just to get to Europe is doing so from a place of freedom and choice.

To use "refugee" as the default term helpfully shifts the discourse into one in which the baseline assumption is that these thousands of people arriving in Europe need help. "Migrant," even in its most neutral iteration, carries fewer generous assumptions. As the Guardian's Patrick Kingsley — whose work on this subject has been second to none—wrote, the "passage [of refugees] cannot be avoided; it can only be better managed." A term like "migrant" is certainly unhelpful if it allows Europe's leaders to labor under the false premise that the mass-migration to Europe is something that can be easily avoided, if only the displaced people would so choose.

I think the term "refugee" is thus primarily useful here for its potential to frame how we judge the European countries dealing with the influx of people. It will not, as Al Jazeera hopes, ensure—even in a small way—that the refugees are accorded more humanity and dignity in the public imaginary. There is no historical shortage of refugee populations, labeled as such, being dehumanized and oppressed. We're seeing this in Europe right now.

Al Jazeera's point applies to English language news, of course. In Germany, the E.U. country which accepts the most asylum-seekers but can and should accept many thousands more in this crisis, has seen a difference parlance play out in the media, with no less racism on the ground. For the most part, the German press has used the term refugees ("Flüchtlinge") instead of migrants ("Migranten"). This weekend, neo-Nazis rioted and attacked a refugee center in the small town of Heidenau over the weekend, recalling the sickening racist riots and arson attacks in Rostock in 1992. In Berlin on Saturday, two neo-Nazis pissed on two children and their mother riding the train while shouting "Heil Hitler" and "You're not Aryan."


No one is suggesting that using "refugee" instead of "migrant" will mitigate the uptick in such nationalist, racist violence—no term that categorizes racial or national difference is immune from infection by racist and nationalist ideology. We certainly don't crush racism by simply finding new words every time one term becomes pejoratively drenched. The shift from "migrant" to "refugee" is potentially important, then, not as a synonym chase away from racist usage. Rather, we insist upon "refugee" to demand that refuge is offered.

Similar semantic challenges attend the discourse on immigration in the U.S., of course. From this context, we should know that no mode of reference is perfect, but some are much worse than others. "Illegal alien" is demonstrably more dehumanizing than "undocumented immigrant," even though the latter seems to underplay the lived difficulty of lacking the legal status to live and work in the country. We know, to speak to current controversy, that "anchor baby" is outright offensive, framing a child's entire existence as no more than an access to citizenship.


But there's a reason that even presumably neutral terms like migrant lend themselves to racist intonation: they were never really neutral. There can be no neutrality in a framework that categorizes people according to nation state divisions and who has power and freedom within them. Semantic acts can be powerful, but they don't tear down borders.