NPR logo 'Refugee' Or 'Migrant': How To Refer To Those Fleeing Home

On Language

'Refugee' Or 'Migrant': How To Refer To Those Fleeing Home

A migrant arrives with his son on the shore near the village of Skala Sikaminea, on the southeastern Greek island of Lesbos, Greece on Friday. Greece this year has been overwhelmed by record numbers of migrants arriving on its eastern Aegean islands, with more than 160,000 landing so far. [Caption from AP, lightly edited.] Visar Kryeziu/AP hide caption

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Visar Kryeziu/AP

A migrant arrives with his son on the shore near the village of Skala Sikaminea, on the southeastern Greek island of Lesbos, Greece on Friday. Greece this year has been overwhelmed by record numbers of migrants arriving on its eastern Aegean islands, with more than 160,000 landing so far. [Caption from AP, lightly edited.]

Visar Kryeziu/AP

Hundreds of thousands of people around the globe have been on the move in recent months, fleeing war, persecution, and poverty. NPR correspondents have been on the scene, with compelling accounts from the beaches of Greece and makeshift camps in France and, last spring, from Southeast Asia.

While the recent stories have received particular attention, perhaps because the migrants and refugees have been flooding into Western countries, people have been fleeing strife in their homelands for years. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees says as of the end of 2014, nearly 60 million were living elsewhere after being forcibly displaced from their homes; many of those people had been displaced for years, even decades.

How NPR correspondents and hosts refer to those fleeing the Middle East, Africa, and Asia has some listeners confused. Are they "migrants," or "immigrants," or "refugees"? Are the words interchangeable?

Mark Memmott, NPR's standards editor, laid out the basics of NPR's approach to the terminology in an April conversation with Weekend Edition Saturday host Scott Simon:

SIMON: Why do we say the victims were migrants and not say refugees?

MEMMOTT: Well, let's work through the words. Refugees leave their homes or their countries to escape persecution, or they might be seeking safety because of wars, as you said. Some may have been forced from their homes by armed forces. Certainly, many of the people who we've been hearing or reading about are refugees, but they've been coming from more than a dozen countries, and they've been coming for many different reasons; some of them maybe just to seek better lives. The word migrants fits for them all. As the dictionary says, a migrant is a person who moves from one place to another, and in particular, it's a word applied to those who leave one country to settle in another. We haven't been using the word immigrants for a very sad reason. The people who didn't make it to Europe - the hundreds who drowned - never got the chance to immigrate. One immigrates when you arrive in a new country.

SIMON: Does the choice of word frame the story in a certain way for people?

MEMMOTT: Yes, and I think it also helps them understand what the situation - you know, the word migrants puts a picture in listeners' minds. These are people who are on the move; many have traveled hundreds, thousands of miles. And as we learn more about the individuals or the families who've been part of this migration and the reasons they've left their homes, we probably will refer to many of them as refugees. But without knowing the specifics of their stories, the word that seems to fit best when reporting about them is migrants.

As Memmott predicted, NPR's use of the language has indeed been evolving, with some references in the past week to the Syrian "refugees" boarding boats in Turkey and living on the beaches of Greece. But some listeners are upset, insisting in emails to NPR and on Twitter that the term "refugees" should be used in virtually all cases.

Further confusing the situation is that the words also have legal definitions that differ slightly from the way some news outlets are using them. The International Organization for Migration's glossary is here.

Joanna Kakissis, a Greece-based NPR freelancer, makes the important point here that the distinctions between "refugees" and "migrants" have major consequences for those involved, specifically because "refugees," once classified as such, have rights under international law that entitle them to special treatment.

As she wrote:

About a quarter of a million people fleeing war and poverty have crossed into the European Union by sea so far this year, more than half of them to Greece. The Eastern Mediterranean sea route managed by people-smugglers from Turkey to Greece is far safer than the Central Mediterranean route from North Africa to Italy.

Most of those who have crossed the narrow sea channel between Kos and the Turkish coast are Syrians fleeing their country's civil war. In Europe, they're treated as refugees and have more rights under international law than other migrants.

That has angered migrants from Afghanistan, Iraq, and Iran — who fought and threw stones at each other on Saturday. Early Sunday, hundreds of Iraqis protested after they were denied entry to the ferry serving as a shelter.

Likewise, international correspondent Ari Shapiro, who is about to start as a host of the newsmagazine All Things Considered, used the terms "migrant" and "refugee" very carefully in this recent conversation with Weekend Edition Sunday host Rachel Martin.

I asked Shapiro, Kakassis, and Larry Kaplow, NPR's international editor for the Middle East, for their thoughts.

"As I see it, the terms 'refugee' and 'asylum-seeker' can be applied to many of the people in these stories, and 'migrant' can be applied to all of them," Shapiro wrote in an email. "But to me, focusing wholly on those definitions misses the forest for the trees. Our main purpose should be to give listeners not only an accurate textbook definition of what's happening, but also a clear understanding of what's happening. Saying, 'Here in Turkey, where I am now, 2 million refugees have fled the civil war in Syria,' is better than saying 'Turkey is experiencing a refugee crisis...or a migrant crisis.' Better yet, let a woman explain in her own words: 'We escaped from the war in Iraq, because they tried to kidnap my daughter from the school.' That's more illustrative than the word 'migrant,' 'refugee,' or 'asylum-seeker.'"

Kakissis wrote:

"I agree that it's best to avoid labels. And Ari makes an excellent point about letting people explain their situations in their own words. That's ideal.

I avoid using the word 'migrant' when I can, at least with the people who are entering Greece, since 80 percent are from Syria and another ten percent from other conflict-wracked places such as Iraq and Afghanistan. They aren't really leaving by choice, to find a better life or better work. They're scared. They're fleeing war and oppression.

I often try to use other descriptions, such as 'people fleeing war and poverty' or just simply stating their nationalities and jobs — a Syrian dental technician, an Iraqi college student, an Afghan tailor, a Rwandan nurse."

Kaplow added one caveat: "Some migrants aren't refugees – they move to look for jobs or other reasons besides war. Some refugees aren't migrants – they're stationary in camps or setting down new roots somewhere. 'Migrant' connotes a kind of movement with no sure destination, which is apt. To the extent that listeners might find it less worthy than 'refugee,' that somehow it's more voluntary movement (if that's the issue), I think we deal with that in the story-telling."

And Shapiro notes yet another, sometimes confusing, denotation: people who flee their homes but remain within the borders of their home countries, say, in Iraq. Under international law they are "internally displaced persons." For reasons of convenience, reporters and headline writers often call them "refugees" or "migrants." But because they have not crossed borders, they are treated differently under international law, so the technical term is often important.

Is it possible for NPR reporters to ask every person on the beach or the boat or in the camp why they are fleeing their home countries? And do people in these situations always tell the truth, especially if they are fleeing for economic reasons? Of course not. So sometimes NPR reporters will use the term "migrants," an umbrella term that also accurately reflects that these are people on the move. When it's possible to determine that a group of people are largely homogenous, say a boatload of Syrians fleeing the civil war back home, NPR should call them what they are: "refugees." By and large NPR correspondents are doing that.

I'll give Memmott the last word. As he wrote to me, the question of what NPR calls people is not limited to this issue; it comes up frequently when NPR tackles many topics. His rule of thumb: "It's often best to avoid labels and use action words to describe what's happening to people."