What’s in a name?

As a result of the increased influx of Syrians and Afghans into Europe in 2015, a political discussion has begun about whether those taking risky paths to Europe are refugees or migrants, and the news media frequently use the terms interchangeably.

In this case, terminology is everything. These words do not mean the same thing and should not be used in the same manner. Use of the term „migrant“ denotes someone seeking economic advantage by coming to Europe as opposed to a „refugee,“ who in fear of life, with no other choice, is forced to flee his or her homeland due to crisis, war or political upheaval. Use of the word refugee carries with it the implication of forced movement, whereas migration implies free will and choice.

The confusion regarding these terms appears to be intentional. Those who oppose accepting refugees refer to them as „economic migrants“ and deny that they have any right to asylum. For people who have lost all that they own, this is not only an affront but also twists the facts.

When examining past crises, a similar pattern of misuse of terminology emerges. During the Second World War, for example, Jewish refugees were frequently referred to as „emigrés,“ which in no way correctly described their plight. As one escapee told me, „ I was not an emigré. I was forced to leave my homeland. I was a refugee.“ When a person is forced to flee his or her home, the term refugee rather than migrant or emigré should be used.

Expatriates are a form of migrant, not necessarily the economic kind, who choose to reside outside of their homelands for political, work or family reasons. Although refugees, economic migrants, exiles, and emigrés all migrate, they do so for different reasons, and using these terms appropriately means understanding the motivation for their movement across borders.

The abuse of those seeking asylum, at least those who truly are refugees, by referring to them as „migrants“ or „emigrés“ is an unfair trick, and one that should be consciously avoided.


Dr. Gregory Weeks is the Founder of HSI, The Human Security Initiative in Vienna, Austria.

The Human Security Initiative is an academic platform for research and publication on the concept of Human Security. It touches on the main aspects of Human Security with articles published by students and scholars of International Relations.