When Words Matter: Refugee or Immigrant?

My post is arriving a little late today. Here’s why.

Friday, my post was ready. It’s title: World Refugee Day.

Here’s how it began:

Did you know that June 20 is World Refugee Day?  I didn’t, until I set my blogging calendar for 2018 and looked for holidays that fell on Wednesday.

Karma.

And so, I began to read about the refugee problem. Thank you, And So It Goes, for pushing me to learn more.

I like sprinkling my blog with posts on various holidays for they offer opportunity for a look at a holiday we’ve never heard of — like the one in May for World Day for Cultural Diversity — or a new look at a more familiar holiday — like the post on Valentine’s Day this year.

Today’s post fits into the former group.

 

Thanks to emnbelgium.be for the image of World Refuge Day.

 

On December 4, 2000 the United Nations General Assembly declared June 20 to be a day to raise public awareness about the refugee situation throughout the world. 

I hope this blog will do just that.

I pulled together some photos (mostly refugee-filled boats capsizing in the Mediterranean Sea), collected some stats (like which countries produce the largest number of refugees?), and ended by asking How do we address this problem? How do we begin to get our minds around it? 

The issue was huge. But I pursued it with an intellectual aloofness that protected me.

There were just so many ways to look at the worldwide problem of refugees fleeing

  1. their countries of origin. Which countries have seen the most refugees fleeing? Syria, Afghanistan, and South Sudan, btw.
  2.  by mode of travel. Turns out there are only two: sea and land; boat and foot;
  3. by year?  I wanted to see the trends. Turns out the numbers have just now begun to fall. Check out Eurostat (“Your key to European statistics”) for the figures.
  4. by country of destination? Where are these refugees going? Who is taking them in?

And I ended by asking,

Or shall we look at the millions still languishing in refugee camps, some for decades? 

I thought any one of these approaches would make a great future blog post and hoped you’d tell me in the Comments which one you’d be interested in. If I found sufficient interest, I’d research that one and see what I found.

My post was ready to go last Friday. I was just puttering around with it. You know, tightening a few paragraphs, changing a few verbs, cross-checking a few statistics.

Then, as I reread my definitions — refugee, immigrant, emigrant, migrant —  the realization hit me that we’ve got a refugee crisis right here at home and we aren’t talking about it in that way. My intellectually aloof stance evaporated.

Why is it, I wondered anew, that we keep hearing about our “illegal immigration problem”  when

we don’t have an immigration crisis on our southern border, illegal or not. We have a refugee crisis.

The language here is critical. The word choice, telling.

We have an American refugee crisis and our government is treating it like it’s a problem with people who are just looking to up themselves a rung or two on capitalism’s ladder.

The news media is not only following along, they’ve made it worse. You’ll hear them using “migrant” a lot. Neither “migrant” nor “immigrant” is synonymous with “refugee.”

A migrant relocates within the same country. The dustbowl era Okies were migrants, leaving their barren Oklahoma land behind for a better life farther west. Bleak as it was, no one was out to shoot them.

An immigrant has chosen to move to a different country, often in search of a better opportunity, better life. By definition, it’s by choice; they can go back if it doesn’t work out.

Sometimes I get the feeling the news folks are using “migrant” because they are confused between “emigrant” and “immigrant” and don’t want to make a mistake.  “Migrant,” they believe, is safer.

BUT IT’S STILL WRONG .

Sorry for yelling. This has really gotten my dander up. 

An emigrant is an immigrant viewed from the country of departure.  When the Soviet Union collapsed, Kazakhstan suffered an emigration problem as Kazakh-born Germans and Russians raced emigrated back to the mother country.  At the same time, Russia and Germany welcomed their new immigrants in those early years (Germany better than Russia, but that’s a story for another day).

Even the terms “refugee” and “asylum seeker” are too often confused. It’s a birds vs. robins thing.  All refugees are (by definition) asylum seekers, but not all asylum seekers are refugees. Let’s not get into that here.

Why does it matter what we call them?

Do you think I’m bogged down in semantics? I don’t believe I am. It’s a humanitarian crisis, certainly, and it needs our attention.

The people now coming across our southern border — who WANT to be taken in by US authorities — are women and children from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, what is known as the “northern triangle” of Central America.

Don’t forget our involvement in El Salvador (1979-1992),  in Guatamala (1960-1996), and Honduras (forever).  To stir those memory cells, I’ve linked to articles I recommend for a decent background. But don’t just take my word for it. Google, “US role in …” for each country and choose the headline that sounds right to you.

These people are fleeing brutal gang violence, extreme poverty, or death by starvation. And they should be protected by international law, specifically the 1951 Refugee Convention.

They qualify as refugees. Let’s start by calling them refugees. And then let’s make sure they get the protections afforded to them under the UN’s Refugee Convention, approved in 1954 and amended in 1967 to extend protection to refugees world wide.

The words immigrant and migrant are not just wrong, the use of these words minimizes the desperation that led to the choices these people have been forced to make. They cannot go back to their homes.

Pay attention when you hear the news broadcasts. Is anyone using “refugee” when speaking of those coming to our American shores? I’d love to find one. Just ONE.  I’ll write them a thank you note.

I’ll close with these words from UN Secretary-General, António Guterres.

“This is not about sharing a burden. It is about sharing a global responsibility, based not only the broad idea of our common humanity but also on the very specific obligations of international law. The root problems are war and hatred, not people who flee; refugees are among the first victims of terrorism.” 

How about you? How has the refugee issue impacted you? Do you want to know more? Or do you already feel overwhelmed? 

41 Responses

  1. Merril Smith
    | Reply

    Good morning and thank you, Janet. Earlier this morning, I saw a post from someone else noting that it is World Refugee Day.

    I don’t think you are being picky with words. It is a refugee problem. And now Sessions has said that domestic violence and gang violence are not grounds for amnesty. There are women fleeing abuse, violence, and rape from spouses. When they seek help from police, they are often abused there, as well.

    Also, I don’t think people understand how immigration courts work (not like regular court), or what is involved when people flee or when they try to immigrate. Husband and I have heard some excellent NPR shows recently dealing with these topics.
    Merril Smith recently posted…The WordsMy Profile

    • Janet Givens
      | Reply

      Thanks for starting us off this morning, Merril. The use of “immigrant” — especially “illegal immigrant” — infuriates me more than any of the other lies and deceits have. Peoples lives are literally on the line. But I think it’s the media going along, not taking the time to think this throug, that’s really got me.
      Janet Givens recently posted…When Words Matter: Refugee or Immigrant?My Profile

  2. Marian Beaman
    | Reply

    Mennonites, including my aunt and grandma, always referred to those they gave shelter to as refugees, knowing full well that they were fleeing from insufferable conditions. They gave refuge first to Vietnamese. Then followed those from other countries at war, the last ones from Serbia, I believe.

    You don’t have to apologize for focusing on semantics: Immigrant and refugee don’t mean the same thing. Thank you for the links too. I especially enjoyed the one for Eurostat.

    The UN Secretary-General is right. Heaven help our country to get it right – and soon!
    Marian Beaman recently posted…Brother Mark: His Life in PicturesMy Profile

  3. Kat
    | Reply

    I agree refuge and immigrant do not mean the same thing. In addition, people generally do not understand the immigration process, at least here in the U.S. My husband, Chris, is Canadian and we went through the immigration process back in 2006. It has it’s challenges to say the least especially for those who don’t use a lawyer. We did it ourselves.

    • Janet Givens
      | Reply

      Hello Kat, and welcome. I appreciate your comments. And you are right, the vast majority of Americans have no experience with the immigration process and know little if anything about it. Isn’t that true with most things, though? It’s through our experience with something that we truly learn it.
      Janet Givens recently posted…When Words Matter: Refugee or Immigrant?My Profile

  4. Kat
    | Reply

    They are protected by International Law as well as U.S. law. However, currently both are being chosen to be ignored.

    • Kat
      | Reply

      People cannot seek asylum in their own countries. They have to go to another country to do so. So when they arrive at our borders to apply for asylum they aren’t actually breaking the law, they are petitioning our government the way international law allows them too.

  5. Laurie Buchanan
    | Reply

    Janet — I always love that you do the heavy lifting (research) and I reap the benefits (learn). As always, thank you.

    “It is about sharing a GLOBAL RESPONSIBILITY, based not only on the broad idea of our COMMON HUMANITY…”
    Laurie Buchanan recently posted…A View With a RoomMy Profile

  6. Tim Fearnside
    | Reply

    Janet, you’re dead on. Language matters. Thank you for helping me think about this more clearly.

    • Janet Givens
      | Reply

      Thanks for your kind words, Tim. Now, if this idea could just catch on a bit. Movement from the WH today, I see. But no solution to the humanitarian mess. Our Statue of Liberty is surely weeping.
      Janet Givens recently posted…When Words Matter: Refugee or Immigrant?My Profile

  7. Clive
    | Reply

    Yes, they are refugees, as well as immigrants. Your points are well made, but what astounds the rest of the world is the way the Trump administration is criminalising them, and using the children as political pawns. Yesterday’s Executive Order – which took him four months to come up with, having blamed everyone except himself for the inhumane treatment of these people – only goes a small way to rectifying the damage, and just creates another problem. Pulling out of the UN Human Rights Commission because the hypersensitive President doesn’t like its very valid criticism is no way to help these people. I hope they will be treated better from now on though, frankly, why they would want to stay in the US when it behaves so abhorrently towards them is beyond me.

    • Janet Givens
      | Reply

      Thanks for your thoughts, Clive. It is a sad state of affairs. I’m thinking of asking in a FB post, “Just what is this immigration problem? Specifically.” As I’ve asked this in face-to-face gatherings I’m starting to understand it all boils down to racism.
      Janet Givens recently posted…When Words Matter: Refugee or Immigrant?My Profile

  8. Ally Bean
    | Reply

    I’m embarrassed to say that I was vaguely aware that there are differences among these words, but that I didn’t understand them. When I was a child I was taught that all people who came to this country were immigrants, but that was then. Now, I agree with you that the people we are focusing on are refugees– and I shall use that word going forward. The more you know, the better you’ll communicate.
    Ally Bean recently posted…#ThursdayDoors | Looking At The Doors In Ms. Bean’s Blogging SanctumMy Profile

    • Janet Givens
      | Reply

      Yes, after World War II, we saw a surge in refugees around the world. Hence the UN’s commission on (European) refugees, which was expanded worldwide in 1967. I think we don’t think of our immigrants as refugees often enough. Certainly the Vietnamese who settled here in the mid-70s would fit that definition.

      But please don’t be too embarrassed, Ally. I didn’t think of it either when I first sat down to write about World Refugee Day. That’s the magic of writing, to me; I begin to see things anew. So exciting. Methinks (I’m loving that word lately) you’ve found that too?
      Janet Givens recently posted…When Words Matter: Refugee or Immigrant?My Profile

  9. Bette Stevens
    | Reply

    Words do matter and I’m so glad to discover that today is World Refugee Day. Your words of wisdom supported by facts sorely need to be shared today and every day, Janet. Thanks!

    • Janet Givens
      | Reply

      Thank you so much, Bette. What really gets me is this “illegal immigrant” idea — refugees HAVE TO enter the country in order to apply for asylum. You can’t apply for it outside the country. There is no other way for them to do that, legally. And they WANT to be taken in by the authorities. They are not trying to sneak in. It’s all so convoluted. I just wish the media would catch on a bit more. Though, I heard a special report on CNN last night on the people coming here from El Salvador and the reporter used Refugee, not immigrant or migrant. So, some are starting to use the right words.
      Janet Givens recently posted…When Words Matter: Refugee or Immigrant?My Profile

  10. cherie
    | Reply

    Another wonderful, and timely post. People seem easily confused by the language, and confusion only seems to add to their fear.

  11. Kathleen Pooler
    | Reply

    Janet, your research on this relevant topic is impeccable. And I think semantics is very important. I didn’t even know what I was confused about until I read your post! Once again, I feel enlightened. I think of my ancestors who immigrated from Britain and Italy and although they suffered discrimination,at least they were welcomed and able to assimilate into society. What is happening at our southern border is heartbreaking beyond words and requires immediate attention.

    • Janet Givens
      | Reply

      We’ve all got ancestors, don’t we Kathy, who came here from somewhere else. Wouldn’t that make an interesting post?

      It is heartbreaking, what has been going on, you’re right. And we must continue to take good care of ourselves for we will be in it for the long haul.

      People will write of this time someday. I vacillate between being glad I’ll not be here to read, and wishing I could see what they’ll say. I so hope the good guys win.
      Janet Givens recently posted…When Words Matter: Refugee or Immigrant?My Profile

  12. bernadette laganella
    | Reply

    This is a wondefully written piece Janet. It is interesting how usage of language can change perception. Perhaps immigrant became a word associated withour southern neighbors in an unfavorable way because of the word migrant worker? In any event what is going on with immigration in our nation’s policies is shameful.

    • Janet Givens
      | Reply

      Shameful, indeed, Bernadette. Of course there have been refugee crises around the world seemingly forever, but having it here, so very close to home, makes it more real. And having our country, that “land of the free and home of the brave” making such a mess of an already difficult situation is heartbreaking. When did Americans become so afraid? Thanks for your lovely comment. I really appreciate it.
      Janet Givens recently posted…When Words Matter: Refugee or Immigrant?My Profile

  13. Carol Taylor
    | Reply

    I read a post by a lady ( can’t) remember her name who stated she was a decedant of settlers not immigrants? It evoked a few comments not many complimentary..so where does that fit in? That said I have great deal of sympathy with refugees…A good post Janet 😀

    • Janet Givens
      | Reply

      Interesting, Carol. I’ve been pondering the distinction (in my own head, not the dictionary’s) between settler and immigrant. My first take was it was an attempt to elevate the reality to a higher plane. And, that could still be there, though, the more I thought about it, there is an important difference, I think. A settler, to me, makes the area where they landed into something else. I think of the US’s “out west” and those settlers creating towns. Immigrant, just like refugee, does have a certain despair, poverty, and last chance aspect to it. I think of the Irish immigrants who came to the US during the potato famine. I guess we need more of her story. Thanks for getting me thinking this morning.
      Janet Givens recently posted…InsideoutsuranceMy Profile

  14. ellen best
    | Reply

    Hi Janet I found at the salon… not the hairdressers but Esme’s place. I am with you but it isn’t just your country it is The UK too. 😯😕 It needs to be rectified and damned quick. Great post I hope to catch you in the chair again soon. 😇😇

    • Janet Givens
      | Reply

      Oh indeed, it is, Ellen. In this day and age, when we can put men on the moon and women in seats of power, and see a dramatic decline in world hunger, you’d think we could put an end to these endless wars so people could get on with living their lives. This is our current tragedy. Thanks for stopping by. Glad you found me.
      Janet Givens recently posted…InsideoutsuranceMy Profile

  15. […] post written by Author Janet Givens, When Words Matter: Refugees or Immigrants?, highlights the issue of how we should label the people attempting to cross into the United […]

  16. […] WHEN WORDS MATTER: REFUGEE OR IMMIGRANT? shared by Janet […]

  17. Fancy
    | Reply

    I see the Irish as having being in a situation like this during the famine. I think we can see a lot more of the suffering on t.v. now and it us terribly upsetting. Kindness mixed with truly intelligent leadership that can find the best way forward is required but this seems difficul to achieve.
    The terminology around the crisis is flaky at best. Cherie’s post is very telling too.
    Fancy recently posted…Starting School and Social MediaMy Profile

    • Janet Givens
      | Reply

      Our immigration history is fraught with conflict between the “insiders” and the “outsiders” — or, those already here vs. those newly arrived. For a country whose “statue of liberty” declares us welcoming the tired, the poor, the homeless, we have become quite pathetic. It’s quite a disgrace, Orla. Thanks for stopping over.

      Here’s that Statue of Liberty quote:

      “Give me your tired, your poor,
      Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
      The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
      Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
      I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”
      Janet Givens recently posted…Happy Birthday, America!My Profile

  18. Janet Morrison
    | Reply

    Excellent post! I’m glad I discovered your blog today.

    • Janet Givens
      | Reply

      I am too, Janet. Thank you. I’ll check yours out soon.

  19. Terri Lyon
    | Reply

    I’m so glad I read your post because I don’t think I had made the distinction between refugee and immigrant and how using the wrong term impacts perceptions. I’ll be paying attention now to the news coverage and I’ll let you know if I hear ‘refugee’.

    This is a great story about a local resident who is a refugee from Syria, whose restaurant was just voted “The Nicest Place in America.” https://www.rd.com/true-stories/inspiring/yassin-falafel-house-nicest-place-in-america/

    It is interesting that in this story the reporter calls Yassin a “refugee, immigrant, and Muslim.”
    Terri Lyon recently posted…How to understand racial justice in a deeper wayMy Profile

    • Janet Givens
      | Reply

      Thanks so much, Terri. I’ve come to a somewhat simpler distinction to make between refugee and immigrant. The later are the ones with luggage. And thanks for the link. I’d read that story before; was it on your blog? Maybe it was the blog that reports uplifting stories. (Starts with Up… can’t recall). Anyway, I love stories like that. We need to offset the hate filled stories and fear monger it as often as possible.
      Janet Givens recently posted…Meet Lindsay de FelizMy Profile

      • Terri Lyon
        | Reply

        I probably shared that article when the award was announced. It was a big deal in Knoxville! When the government shut down Yassin fed furloughed employees for free. I’ve met him and he really is that nice.

        • Janet Givens
          | Reply

          Yes, I did read that one. And it could also have been in Upworthy.com too (just remembered). What a beacon for good that family is.
          Janet Givens recently posted…Meet Lindsay de FelizMy Profile

  20. Ellen Hawley
    | Reply

    Where I live, there are endless efforts to send support–food, clothing, toiletries–to the refugees trapped in camps (mostly in Greece) or in no camps at all (France). It’s never enough. Our governments have turned their backs, and this is a crisis that can only be effectively addressed by governments. It makes me so angry, so frustrated, I want to throw things, but the targets, all of them, are safely out of our sight.

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