How to Use the World “Migrants”


Oxford, 27August 2015

Using the right terms when referring to Europe’s migration crisis has become a minefield for journalists. For starters, it’s not exactly a “migration crisis” since most of those on the move are Syrian, Afghan and Eritrean refugees fleeing wars and persecution. Al Jazeera’s recent decision to stop using the word “migrant” entirely in reference to people crossing the Mediterranean is one reflection of the evolving debate, but there are still plenty of major media brands getting it wrong.


Here are a few of the most common mistakes:


“They are fleeing persecution, war and famine in their home countries with the majority of the migrants believed to be from Eritrea, Syria and Afghanistan,” read a recent Associated Press story in The Independent. If they have fled persecution and war (as in the case of Eritreans, Syrians and Afghans), they are refugees – or at the very least asylum seekers.

To call them migrants is not technically wrong, in the sense that anyone moving from one place to another is a migrant. But if they are fleeing countries we know to be at war or that are guilty of widespread human rights violations, a much more specific term – ie. refugee – is available.

The major migratory routes into Europe right now are used by a mixture of asylum seekers (people who have applied or intend to apply for refugee status but have not yet had their cases decided) and so-called ‘economic migrants’, so it can get confusing. But when reporting exclusively on Syrians, as this CBS report does, there is no good reason for referring to them all as migrants.


This is much less common, but Al Jazeera’s move makes it likely we’ll see more sentences like this one from a story the news network released this week: A record number of refugees streamed into EU member Hungary from Serbia, police said, just days before Hungary completes a border fence.”


Although the majority of people arriving in Hungary would qualify for refugee status, some are trying to reach Europe in search of economic opportunities rather than safety.

While it is not technically wrong to call a refugee a migrant, it is incorrect to call all migrants refugees.

See: Refugee versus migrant: time for a new label?


In the past few months, the European Union has released a number of important proposals and policies relating to migration. The most controversial and hotly debated have been those concerning the resettlement of recognised refugees to EU member states and the relocation of asylum seekers arriving in Greece and Italy to other EU countries.

Many media outlets misrepresent the policies by referring to those being resettled or relocated as migrants.

This BBC report talks about “plans to resettle tens of thousands of migrants across Europe” and “objections to relocating migrants according to mandatory quotas”.

This Daily Mail article makes the same mistake: “Britain will not heed an EU call for member states to take in 40,000 migrants from Italy and Greece.”

Migrants and failed asylum seekers do not qualify for resettlement or relocation and are more likely to face deportation. Using the term “migrants” in this context reinforces misperceptions that the EU is pushing for member states to admit more migrants.


Nearly every journalist who has written about the record levels of migration to the EU in recent months has probably been tempted to use the words: ‘wave’, ‘flood’ or ‘tide’. This Washington Post story from April uses them all and takes it up a notch with “tidal wave of humanity”.

ANot only have the sea metaphors become tired and clichéd, they are alarmist and reinforce irrational fears that Europe is in danger of being engulfed by a sea of unwanted foreigners.

Yes, the numbers of arrivals are high relative to previous years, but we’re still only talking about a few hundred thousand people spread across a region with a total population of 508 million.


IRIN is an independent, non-profit media organization



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