When is a migrant a refugee? As war, starvation, and persecution drive millions of people from their homes and into strange lands, reportage struggles to parse the distinctions between refugee, displaced person, migrant, immigrant, and other terms for people on whom calamity has been visited and movement made inevitable.
I’ll focus here only on two words: migrant and refugee. These terms are critically important for political reasons, since laws and policies may extend to a refugee what might be withheld from a migrant. A recent New York Times article by Somini Sengupta explains the distinctions between migrant and refugee as the terms are currently deployed. Sengupta’s article reminds readers how the 1951 Refugee Convention defines refugee, and in so doing becomes the foundation for much contemporary thinking on the subject.
The word refugee looks and sounds French, and it is, sort of. The Oxford English Dictionary’s first definition of refugee — “a Protestant who has fled France to seek refuge elsewhere” — dates to 1671, though in its early years the word refers especially to someone who has fled after 1685, following the revocation of the Edict of Nantes.
The Edict of Nantes doesn’t show up in much political journalism these days. With a stroke of the pen, Louis XIV formalized the persecution of the Huguenots, inadvertently supporting a new term that would go on to have a long and sorry future.
The term refugee soon expanded its reach. English usage brought refugee into wider circulation, so that 18th-century writers were able to invoke the term without even tacit reference to the French Protestant crisis.
I was surprised to discover, though, that migrant enters English usage within a year of refugee. One of my favorite writers, the refreshingly curious Sir Thomas Browne, provides the OED’s first citation of migrant in his Letter to a Friend in 1672. Browne is, however, referring to migrant birds, and not persons, much less Protestant persons.
Migrant, emigrant, and immigrant have their own tangled history. Everything, or at least much, depends on where one stands. The OED cites a 1922 Australian source (the Sydney Daily Mail ), which urges that arrivals to Australia from Britain should not be called immigrants but rather migrants, “because to go from Britain to Australia is only to pass from one part of Great Britain to another.”
Today we face other arguments and positions about what to call new arrivals. On the current geopolitical chessboard, refugee and migrant — both people and terminology — face off in a game of enormously high stakes.
Refugees are no longer exclusively persons in flight from religious persecution. We don’t speak of animal refugees (though we might). We do speak of migrant animals, however, meaning creatures that travel long distances on a temporary basis, often dazzling us human observers as they make an equally long migratory return home.
The people we label as migrants, on the other hand, may see their absence from home as temporary, but they may also be people leaving home with little hope that a home remains to return to. The refugee and the migrant each know best what they are. One may be fleeing from, the other in pursuit of.
It’s not quite irony, but something like it, that these terms — destined to be locked in politico-linguistic combat — should have entered our language at the same moment.
Unrelated they may have been in 1671/2, but refugee and migrant now struggle to disentangle themselves from each other, while we struggle to find physical shelter for people without place.
It may seem trivial to discuss etymology here, as if it were somehow reducing a global crisis to an academic parlor game. But let’s remind ourselves, and our governments, that language — especially how we name people, as well as things — is at the heart of every crisis, every decision, every choice.
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[[Image: Refugees in Hungary, via Wikimedia Commons]]