Politicians should use language carefully and responsibly, but we all must endeavour to use the correct terminology to discussion migration in our everyday lives.

Written by Isobel Parry-Jones.



Navigating the multiple, often overlapping terms used in regard to migration is messy but deserves careful attention. Language and its use (and indeed, its misuse) by the media, politicians, and general public, has palpable consequences both in policy and people’s everyday experiences. Navigating the multiple, often overlapping terms used in regard to migration is messy but deserves careful attention. Language and its use (and indeed, its misuse) by the media, politicians, and general public, has palpable consequences both in policy and people’s everyday experiences.

Defining these terms is challenging because they are used inconsistently and frequently incorrectly. They serve different purposes for different actors, across law, for self-identification, academia, and the media, though significantly, perceived interpretation of these terms has increasingly converged behind anti-immigration rhetoric.

Given this ambiguity, it is important to define the terms. A migrant is, according to the United Nations (UN), an umbrella term encompassing numerous legal categories, including workers, international students, asylum seekers and refugees. Despite it being imprecise, it is frequently used by the British media with negative connotations, particularly in relation to migrants as a threat to British sovereignty and identity. This was evident in the ‘Take Back Control’ slogan adopted by Leave campaigners in the 2016 EU referendum. While not explicitly linked to immigration, the salience of migration as a key topic of debate drew a clear connection between the two. The slogan conveys a notion of nationalism that defines itself against what it is not, in an ‘us’ versus ‘them’ dichotomy. In a post-pandemic period of austerity and rising populism, migrants have become an easy target for politicians and parts of the media to blame for people’s suffering. A deliberate means of drawing public attention away from the real causes of their misfortunes: the chronic under funding of the health service, lack of affordable housing, and inadequate access to education.

Anti-immigration legislation (the 2022, Nationality and Borders Act and the 2023, Illegal Immigration Act) passed by the Conservative Government has made claiming asylum almost impossible. Avenues to enter the UK legally have been cut off, with restrictions on who can claim asylum and where asylum applications can be submitted. As of this year, asylum can only be claimed from within the UK with the exception of Ukrainian nationals (with either family in the UK or someone willing to provide a home), and Afghan nationals that have previously worked for the UK Government or British Army (Amnesty International UK 2023). Ultimately, the Conservative Government have created a reality, fed by anti-migration rhetoric and corresponding policy decisions, where the only way to claim asylum is to enter the UK illegally, most commonly by a treacherous journey across the English Channel in a small boat.

Despite the narrative of migrants (though, in many cases this should be asylum seekers) as a drain on national resources, asylum seekers are actively prevented from working and cannot claim benefits. For many people seeking asylum, this state of limbo, shifts from being temporary to lasting for years, with a report by the UK Refugee Council (2021) revealing that as of the end of December 2020, “2,284 people had been waiting 3 years or more for an initial decision” for asylum, with “253 people…waiting for 5 years or more”.

Asylum seeker is a transitory term, only applicable to “someone whose request for sanctuary has yet to be processed” (UNHCR 2023), following approval of which, they would become a refugee. The term refugee, enshrined in international law in the 1951 Refugee Convention, is, “someone who is unable or unwilling to return to their country of origin owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion”. Notably, as per current legislation, to be able to remain in the UK under the refugee status, one must be “unable to live safely in any part of your own country because you fear persecution”. However, as the former UK Home Secretary Suella Braverman’s recent statements indicate, even the term ‘persecution’ is up for debate. During a speech, she stated  that “simply being gay, or a woman, and fearful of discrimination in your country of origin is not sufficient to qualify for protection” despite the fact that as of March 2023, there are still sixty-four countries that still criminalise homosexuality (BBC 2023) and that according to United Nations (UN) experts “130 million girls [are] denied education” (OHCHR 2023).

The negative presentation of migration is fed by elements of the media. Despite the UK taking far fewer immigrants than many of its European neighbours, there are frequently sensationalist headlines about “waves” or “invasions” (The Guardian 2022) of migrants, evoking anxiety and fear. This metaphoric and hyperbolic language is deeply dehumanising, making people either a homogenous entity, or a series of statistics; they are no longer the “full and complex human – with jobs, education, histories and families” (Cooper et al 2021: 201). It is also categorically wrong to label many of these people as migrants; grossly and deliberately oversimplifying their experiences as refugees and asylum seekers.

The repetitive use of dehumanising language by politicians and the media make policies like Braverman’s ‘Rwanda policy’ and the Bibby Stockholm refugee barge possible by legitimising racist and xenophobic attitudes. The drip-feeding of anti-immigrant attitude and blame, galvanises fear amongst the electorate, which is capitalised on by populist politicians in the battle for votes, in turn creating a vicious cycle, with asylum seekers and refugees as fatalities, sometimes quite literally.

Language creates and shapes reality. We must think critically about it and, in the case of migration, scrutinise how the language used by politicians and the media creates and cultivates a particular story. Politicians should use language carefully and responsibly, but we must all endeavour to use the correct terminology to discuss migration in our everyday lives.

Isobel Parry-Jones is a Communications Intern at the UNESCO Regional Bureau for Science and Culture in Europe. She graduated from the University of Manchester with a Masters (with Distinction) in International Relations, and a First Class BA (Hons) in Spanish and Italian with Catalan. Her areas of interest include peace and conflict studies, intersectional approaches to post-conflict development, and the importance of language and communication. Her Masters dissertation, "A Poststructural Look at Female Gender Performances in the Colombian Peace Agreement (2012-2016): Scrutinising the Label of 'Gender Inclusivity' in the Final Agreement and its Implementation", explored the role of language in conceptualising ideas of gender and its impact on producing tangible effects in policy.