Expat, migrant, refugee: how do we talk about people who leave their home country?
Last month, refugee was chosen as the Oxford Children’s Word of the Year 2016. The decision was made after analysing more than 123,436 entries to the 2016 BBC Radio 2 500 WORDS competition. The word also made the Oxford Dictionaries Word of the Year shortlist last year, but was ultimately beaten by the ‘Face with Tears of Joy’ emoji.
The spike in usage of refugee in 2015 – which made us pay attention to the word in the first place – was most likely down to the increased media coverage of the Syrian people fleeing to Europe in an attempt to escape the civil war in their country. Searching for collocations of the term in the Oxford New Monitor Corpus, it turned out that Syrian was indeed the word most commonly associated with refugee, followed by Palestinian, Afghan, Somali, and Sudanese:
Refugees and migrants
As the Syrian refugee crisis dominated the headlines in late 2015, the English-speaking press started to debate the difference in meaning of refugee and migrant. OxfordDictionaries.com defines refugee as ‘a person who has been forced to leave their country in order to escape war, persecution, or natural disaster’, and migrant as ‘a person who moves from one place to another in order to find work or better living conditions’.
The key word in the definition of refugee is ‘forced’. Refugees don’t leave their countries voluntarily; they are forced to flee because they are faced with a direct threat of death or persecution in their country of origin. Although the two terms are often used interchangeably in the press, it is important to draw a clear distinction here. A refugee has certain rights under international law, which gives the term a legal dimension that migrant lacks. In fact, according to our corpus, the adjective illegal is used more frequently as a modifier of migrant than any other word:
Some media outlets have nonetheless decided on using migrants as an umbrella term that also includes refugees. The BBC, for instances, started adding the following disclaimer below every story related to the topic:
‘The BBC uses the term migrant to refer to all people on the move who have yet to complete the legal process of claiming asylum. This group includes people fleeing war-torn countries such as Syria, who are likely to be granted refugee status, as well as people who are seeking jobs and better lives, who governments are likely to rule are economic migrants.’
The debate surrounding the semantic difference proves just how difficult it can be for journalists to find the right words when reporting about a complex topic – and using the wrong terminology can potentially have negative consequences. On its website, the UNHCR warns: ‘Confusing [the terms refugee and migrant] can lead to problems for refugees and asylum-seekers, as well as misunderstandings in discussions of asylum and migration.’
Immigrants and emigrants
Mentions of the word migrant, like refugee, picked up in September 2015, and actually overtook mentions of the semantically related immigrant, which OxfordDictionaries.com defines as ‘a person who comes to live permanently in a foreign country’.
A look inside the corpus reveals that immigrant is used in similar, slightly negative contexts: like migrant, immigrant is first associated with the adjective illegal, and undocumented is another collocation the two words have in common.
The evidence from the corpus seems to point towards a slight bias for the term migrant in the UK, being coupled with both EU and African, two words that get their fair share of mentions in the British press. The US meanwhile is portrayed in the media as one of the favoured destinations of Mexican citizens due to its proximity to their home country, which could explain the appearance of Mexican in the above chart, but not in the other.
The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) tells us that immigrant entered the English language in the late 18th century and was formed on the pattern of emigrant, which apparently predates the former by a few decades. Emigrant, however, seems to be going out of use. Our corpus lists only 0.3 mentions per million words, compared to 23.7 for immigrant, and 16.4 for migrant.
Asylum seekers and displaced people
Although asylum seeker is semantically close to refugee, meaning ‘a person who has left their home country as a political refugee and is seeking asylum in another’, with 0.7 mentions per a million words, it hasn’t received much attention in the media compared to its synonym (32.12 mentions per million) as the frequency graph shows. The OED suggests that it originated in the late 1950s, so it must have emerged in the context of the Geneva Convention, which was signed in 1951.
Refugee, on the other hand, predates asylum seeker by over two hundred years. It is being listed by the OED as having come into usage in the second half of the 17th century, but was at first used in the now historical sense ‘Protestant who fled France to seek refuge elsewhere from religious persecution’, especially with reference to the Huguenots fleeing the country following the Edict of Nantes in 1685.
Another term, displaced person (often abbreviated to D.P.), refers in particular to a ‘non-German compelled to work in Germany’ during the Second World War. The OED cites a 1944 US newspaper article as the first written evidence of the word: ‘The Refugees..or, as they term these people here..the Displaced Persons.’ It can now also be more generally applied to a person ‘removed from [their] home country by military or political pressure’. A search of displaced people in our corpus yields 6,649 results (0.83 mentions per million) – not many more than for asylum seeker.
The word expat is another interesting one in our list. Short for expatriate and used to refer to ‘a person who lives outside their native country’, it seems close in meaning to the term immigrant. However, if we take a look at some of its most popular collocations, we’ll find that expat is used in decidedly different contexts:
In stark contrast to immigrant and migrant, the question of the legality of the migration is mostly removed from the term’s context. It can also be interfered that expat is more commonly used for people from richer, English-speaking countries. When we talk about expats, we often tend to think of Britons or Americans first.
Interestingly, the origin of the term puts it closer to refugee. The verb expatriate, from Latin ex-, ‘out’, and patria, ‘native country’, has the meaning ‘to drive (a person) away from [their] native country; to banish’. The OED also includes a second sense for the word’s reflexive form: ‘to renounce one’s citizenship or allegiance’. More generally, it is defined as ‘to withdraw from one’s native country’.
As the above frequency graph shows, expat isn’t used nearly as much as immigrant or migrant, and neither is expatriate as a noun. Our corpus came up with 2.0 mentions per million words and 1.8 mentions per million words respectively.