‘Migrants’? ‘Refugees’? Terminology Is Contested, Powerful, and Evolving

Rebecca Hamlin
Date of Publication: 
March, 2022
Source Organization: 
Migration Policy Institute

Over the last decade, the rise in international migration has increased focus on how to refer to people crossing borders. Should they be called "migrants…refugees” or some other term? Research demonstrates that opinions can be swayed by variations in terminology and framing. In this Migration Policy Institute report, Rebecca Hamlin reviews debates about migration terminology and how these discussions have played out over the last decade. According to a 2019 Pew Research Center survey, people in multiple immigrant destination countries are more likely to support admitting people described as “refugees” than “immigrants.” In Hamlin's book, Crossing: How We Label and React to People on the Move, a similar experiment found that respondents in the United States were more likely to say their country had an obligation to help people described as “vulnerable refugees” rather than “vulnerable migrants.” Efforts to push language in a more inclusive direction have achieved success but also triggered opposition. Migration is an issue that speaks deeply to people’s beliefs about who is deserving of humanitarian protection, how governments should respond, and the merits of diversity. Labels, however, can only do so much to change attitudes. Moreover, people cross borders for multiple reasons, which might change throughout their journey. Both law and terminology can often fail to encompass these nuanced motivations. (The Immigrant Learning Center’s Public Education Institute)

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Hamlin, R. (2022, March). Migrants’? ‘Refugees’? Terminology Is Contested, Powerful, and Evolving. Migration Policy Institute. https://www.migrationpolicy.org/article/terminology-migrants-refugees-il...