Migrant vs. immigrant vs. refugee: Why names matter

This week’s blog post is written by Esther Isaac, advocacy research intern in the Ottawa Office.  Esther recently completed an undergraduate degree in Political Science and Global Studies at the University of Ottawa.

A Facebook page called Humans of New York includes the story of a man who has recently come to the USA as a refugee from Syria. In Syria he was a father, an inventor and an architect. In his words: “I want to be a person again. I don’t want to world to think I’m over. I’m still here.” His comment shows how the title of refugee can overshadow a person’s humanity.

Conflicts in Syria and Iraq have prompted a large number of individuals to flee the region. To escape from violence in their home countries, many people from Syria and Iraq move into neighboring countries, including Lebanon and Jordan. Recently, many are seeking to leave Lebanon and Jordan because the areas have become over-burdened due to the increased numbers of people fleeing conflict. This wave of people has, in recent months generated a lot of attention from the international community, particularly once an increasing number of people began to arrive in Europe both by land and by sea.


Sam Gibbons, Zoe Ford-Muzychka, and Eve Dewing at the Calgary airport to welcome the Al Saeid family, refugees arriving from Syria.  Photo/Hand over Hand.

The terms used for the people displaced within the region and who are moving out of the region due to the conflict have not been consistent. This has had a significant impact on how those reading about this mass movement of individuals are seen, and indeed how the individuals who are themselves fleeing the conflict see themselves.

Those who talk about displaced persons, from politicians to media outlets, use many different words interchangeably, including: refugee, migrant, immigrant, asylum seeker, and internally displaced person. Even reading these terms, one gets a very distinct idea of how the speakers and writers wish people to respond.

Some news writers and politicians use more evocative and discriminatory terms to describe people arriving en masse in Europe, including: swarms, marauders, vagrants, and cockroaches. These terms are inappropriate for many reasons, namely: they foster fear and disgust of the people to whom they are referring, they dehumanize people, and finally, they are far from proper terms, the use of which can help foster an understanding of the situation.

So, let’s take a look at some definitions, and see how the individuals leaving the Syria and Iraq conflict looking for a safer place to live fall within the internationally-recognized definitions.

Refugee: A person who is outside their home country because of fear of persecution due to reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion and are unable to return to their home country or be protected by their home government. Refugees flee into a new country in order to preserve their own lives or freedom; and are given forms of protection by the host country

Migrant: A person who chooses to move not because of a direct threat or persecution or death, but mainly to improve their lives by finding work, or in some cases for education, family reunion, or other reasons.

Immigrant: A person who enters a county of which one is not a native, in order to live in it permanently. Both refugees and migrants can fit under this category, although many refugees and migrants hope one day to return to their country of origin.

Asylum Seeker: A person who claims to be a refugee and seeks international protection but whose claim has yet to be evaluated by the UN High Commission for Refugees.

Internally Displaced Person: A person who has been forced to flee their home, but has not yet crossed an international border to become a refugee.


Hanan Talabeh’s family arrived as refugees from Syria in 2015. From left: Hanadi, Lara, Nada, Sara and Jaafar. Photo/Hanan Talabeh

Words matter. They influence what people think about others, and what people think about themselves. It is important that we use words that are true. The truth in this matter is that the vast majority of the people fleeing Syria and Iraq are refugees or asylum seekers.

International laws protect refugees. Calling refugees migrants is both inaccurate, and allows states to shirk their responsibilities with regards to laws that protect refugees. So, it is important that the proper terms be used in order that people who are refugees are able to realize their rights.

Not only can incorrect terminology diminish the public and political support available for these refugees, it can also increase the emotional strain on the refugees themselves due to a possible change in how they see their own struggles and their own identity.

The power of words is well documented and therefore it is important that the words we use be chosen carefully. A person’s identity is shaped at least partially through the way in which others see them, speak about them, and treat them. This is particularly pertinent given that 51% of refugees are children. Using the right terminology will help refugees to receive the proper treatment. But we must also remember them as people, and allow their humanity to be their primary identity.

Some words legitimize the struggle of refugees, and others diminish that struggle. Some words spur politicians and citizens into action, and others allow for complacency. Some words help, and others harm.

Let us strive to know and use the right terminology and to understand the impact of our words on the lives of others. Furthermore, let us try to see people not merely as the words we attach to them, be it refugee, migrant, or anything else, but instead to see them as human beings, and get to know them and their story.


If you would like to get to know some stories of refugees, and how learn their identity is more than just their immigration status, here is a link to some stories.

If you are interested in learning more about sponsoring or assisting refugees, here is a link to some helpful information.

2 thoughts on “Migrant vs. immigrant vs. refugee: Why names matter

  1. I love this attention to the critical meaning of these words. However, it does not appear to me that people fleeing from general conditions of war or other violence or even natural disasters fall within the strict definition of a refugee who leaves “their home country because of fear of persecution due to reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion.” We may need a new category of people leaving these unsafe conditions.

  2. Thank you! I will be sharing this article with my Faith in Action group at UMEI in Leamington. We have been talking about the Syrian refugee crisis this year and MCC has provided great resources!

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