It is hard to overstate the case for the movement of people being the world’s biggest event for generations. It preceded, was implicated in, and is likely to outlast, most other contenders, including regional or civil wars, and shock elections or referendums. Even the biggest potential challenger for impactful-world-event, the escalation of threat in the Korean peninsula, has remained irresolvable because, among other things, of a desire to avoid a flow over the North Korean/Chinese border. The long term trend for global displacement is decidedly upwards, with a group of 65.6 million people (the size of the UK population) now ‘forcibly displaced’, and new crises, such as that between Myanmar and Bangladesh, emerging constantly.


However available the statistics, we seem condemned to imprecision when talking about people on the move - a phenomenon which may be called an uncertainty principle of sorts, since it is the momentum, the constant coming and going, which makes things hard to measure (and numbers may be underestimated because some, for various reasons, “opt out of the system” and don’t register as refugees.) For starters, 65.6 million is not all people moving worldwide (it is only those moving, the UNHCR say, ‘as a result of persecution, conflict, violence, or human rights violations’), and neither are they all moving across national borders - 40.3 million of them are displaced within their own countries.


But it is also in vocabulary that we are at risk of being imprecise. It is hard to write this article without eventually collocating “migrant” and “crisis”. It seems like a reasonable pairing, since moving people are migrating, and the responses of most host nations has been inadequate (for many reasons - some don’t have the resources, others have the resources but choose restrictive policies.) But media discussion overburdens this problematic phrase. While most discourse discusses the localised issue of people moving into Europe (mostly through Spain, Italy and Greece), it remains that the majority of people on the move and in need of help are not in or moving towards Europe. The host countries with the most displaced people, relative to both population and GDP, are mostly African or Middle Eastern - not a fact often acknowledged in British media.


If we isolate the European example, however, we find the inadequacy is not only in solutions, but yet again in how we talk about moving people. The term “mixed migration” addresses the fact that a stream contains people moving for various reasons: hostile political climate, general war and mass direct violence (Syria and Myanmar), improvement of work, environmental disaster (Yemen) or people being moved against their will (prominent examples include trafficked people from Vietnam or Nigeria). Nonetheless, media reports and government representatives rarely acknowledge the complexity of such streams, preferring to stick to a dichotomy of “migrant” and “refugee” as the two available types of moving person.


Dr Nicholas Van Hear of Oxford’s Centre on Migration, Policy, and Society (COMPAS) says that policy regimes ‘tend to see migrants in terms of a sole motivation to migrate’, and that is certainly a driving idea behind the “migrant”/“refugee” dichotomy: that the former moves through choice, the latter because of force. Bound up in these terms are also, I argue, sets of assumptions about need. It is commonly assumed that a migrant is in possession of at least some capital (financial, instructional, or social), and that a refugee is essentially resourceless and helpless. We can see these assumptions working their way into charity appeals and government conversations about migrants and refugees: the idea that states should be helping those who have nothing, and should be suspicious of those who have the ability to, for example, enter employment


A simple search on the Daily Mail, The Sun and Daily Mirror websites shows that their articles tend to use the terms “migrant” and “refugee” interchangeably. In the case of the Mail, the headlines using the word “migrant” tend to focus on arrivals into Europe, whereas headlines about “refugees” address the Americas or those displaced between Middle Eastern countries. In other words, you’re a refugee, deserving of pity, until you actually arrive on European shores, at which point you’re a migrant. This is not a press sympathetic to researcher Jorgen Carling’s view that: ‘Refugees are migrants, too. And all migrants matter.’ Current government leaders tend not to worry about being too discerning between the terms either, or where they do, such as in Labour’s 2017 manifesto, they perpetuate an unhelpful fuzziness of priorities, and argue largely only in favour of assisting refugees.


The problem with the way we talk about this dichotomy is that it converts the state of a moving person at their origin directly into an assumed set of needs. As a hypothetical example, somebody may leave a war-torn country with few physical possessions or cash, but with good education or specialised vocational training, and good language skills. They are in need not of reeducation, but of financial assistance. Somebody else may leave a stable, poor country with full suitcases and ready finance, but be young and untrained, and unable to speak any foreign languages. The former would mostly be viewed a refugee, the latter a migrant, and although these are useful terms in that we may wish to explicate differences between these two types of moving person, they have picked up deeply unhelpful associations. People have different sets of needs which do not necessarily match our assumptions.


This debate is being held in the open at the UNHCR, and between NGOs and academia. Even at the same time that the UNHCR website states that ‘[m]igrants are fundamentally different from refugees’, Peter Sutherland of the UN General Assembly says in a 2017 report that there is not a ‘clear-cut’ difference between ‘those who flee literally at gunpoint and those whose movement is entirely voluntary’. In the same paragraph, Sutherland makes what I think is the most cogent summary of the situation: there is, he says, a ‘need to overcome the facile binary approach that treats refugees as “good” … and irregular migrants as “bad”’. It is something of a “four legs good, two legs bad” viewpoint - those arriving on all fours, bereft of all energy, are most deserving of help. Those who can stand by themselves should be left to it.


These NGO-based or academic discussions have regrettably little impact on governmental discourse or policy. Politicians and parties continue to be inarticulate on the matter - at the highest level, they are caught up in a furious media cycle, in which, particularly of late, there is a high burn rate of stories and policies. It is not that it is fundamentally unhelpful to distinguish between types of moving people - quite the opposite. It is, however, unhelpful for the terms we use to have associations that do not properly describe the complexity of people’s needs.


When the propaganda poster claiming that ‘Careless talk costs lives’ launched during the Second World War, it was imagining a situation where the throwaway gossip of bus passengers was leaking vital state secrets. What we need now is a similar slogan aimed instead at the very public and seemingly careless talk of journalists and politicians. A wealthy country can never be neutral on these matters, - as academic David Turton has argued, ‘[f]orced migration is not something we discover but something we make’, and as journalist Daniel Trilling pointed out recently, you are either willing to help moving people, or you are willing to tolerate violence to stop them from moving. Similarly, when politicians and the media enter public discourse, it is not so much that the lives of moving people are in their hands as on their lips.


* The author would like to thank Lena Kainz for her advice in writing this piece