Words Matter

“Migrants and refugees” versus “migrants, including refugees”

migrants including refugees

For a long time, we used the term “migrants and refugees” when referring to communities that we stand in solidarity with. Through reflection and learning, we have decided to shift our language to “migrants, including refugees”. Why exactly have we shifted our language?

Umbrella term

The term migrant is a general umbrella term, which encompasses refugees, asylum seekers, international students, migrant workers, undocumented migrants and many other migrant groups. Refugees are migrants: they are a subgroup of migrants with protection needs and rights. Placing an “and” in between “migrants” and “refugees” incorrectly implies that refugees are not a subgroup of migrants, and also begins to reinforce divisive narratives. 

Divisive narratives: a deliberate separation

We have also reflected on the fact that “migrants” and “refugees” are constructed by politicians and the media as separate unrelated groups. This is deliberate. Generally, refugees are constructed as “deserving” and “genuine”, with a “legitimate” claim to protection, because they are fleeing war and persecution. This is in contrast with those who are constructed to be “simply migrants”, who are generally constructed to be “undeserving”, “ungenuine”, and with an “illegitimate” claim to protection. Even within the categorisation of refugees, we are witnessing a binary between “genuine” and “ungenuine”. With White refugees, such as Ukrainians, being labelled as “genuine”, whilst other refugees, such as Sudanese, Afghan and Iraqi refugees, being labelled as “ungenuine”. 

This separation is a key element of divide and rule. It means we and others start to think about and label groups of people on the move based on where they come from and whether we think they need protection. The Government, the UNHCR, and general society pits marginalised groups against each other through narratives of deservingness. We reject this framing, and so our language must also develop to reflect our values.

White refugees in particular are also framed as having no other choice but to come here. Their movement is framed as forced and involuntary, which it is. However, they are deliberately separated from racialised refugees, and other migrants, whose movement is deemed to be voluntary, and because of this, they are denied the respect and empathy that is sometimes only afforded to White refugees. Whilst there are of course levels to suffering, our immigration system is unable to recognise the validity in the multitude of reasons that people move. 

Fostering solidarity

A shift from “migrants and refugees” to “migrants, including refugees” also helps us to focus on the interconnectedness of all our experiences, and serves as an exercise in building solidarity and common ground between interdependent struggles. No-one is arguing that the experience of an asylum seeker, who has lived through the asylum system or who has been held in immigration detention, is quite the same as an international student, or a migrant who moves to access better work opportunities. But we do know they can and do also suffer under our immigration systems too, so, what we can do is recognise the commonalities between our experiences and struggles. 

Our Words Matter campaign is about empowerment with and through accountability. This campaign, whilst being about holding others to account, is also about holding ourselves to account. We must all be accountable for the language that we chose, and we all have agency to change it. And so, in the spirit of transparency, our collection of Words Matter explainers is also an archive of our own never-ending journey with language. 


Many thanks to Jørgen Carling for inspiring this Words Matter explainer with their insightful and thought provoking article: ‘The phrase “refugees and migrants” undermines analysis, policy and protection’. 

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