Podcast 15: Labels and Linguistics

Refugee (Word of the Week)

Hello and welcome to MOAS

When was the last time you thought about the labels we give people on the move? Some have positive meanings and others, strong negative connotations.  Labels can influence change or they can target and exclude.  They can also in the adapted words of Robert Cox be used for someone and to serve a purpose. 

In this Podcast we’re looking at how labels in migration are constructed, their limitations and how the people given them feel. You might be thinking Asylum Seeker, Refugee, Migrant; the three main words in the lexicon of migration.


Asylum Seekers are people fleeing one country and seeking asylum in another country. Refugees are those recognized for fleeing because of persecution, war or other forms of violence.  Migrants are not refugees. They chose to leave their homes for a better life, work or education and they can leave at any time.

But it’s not that simple… categories don’t fit everyone’s experiences and that’s difficult for people drafting migration policy and those given them.                                                                               

Also, be sure to check out the first in a series called, ‘things you didn’t know’.  It’s about the countries that people MOAS has rescued have come from.

Professor Heaven Crawley has been investigating these categories for several years now and she says there’s problems with them. Their construction fails to see how people’s reasons for leaving change. They’re also deeply political and the debate behind them unfairly discriminates between those seen as deserving of rights and protection.


As part of the research we interviewed 215 people who’d crossed to Greece from Turkey. We also interviewed another nearly 300 people in Italy and elsewhere, and many of the findings were similar but they were very different in terms of the nationality. Most of the people we interviewed in Greece were from Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq; in fact these countries alone made up nearly 90% of the people who arrived in Greece in 2015.  Now, these are countries with well documented conflict and human rights abuses, particularly Syria, so half the people we interviewed were from Syria and they of course gave us very detailed accounts of the civil war which has been raging since March 2011 and the consequences for themselves and their families.

Because we interviewed people particularly on the island of Lesbos when they had literally just arrived – sometimes they had been on the island for maybe a few hours or a day or two – they were often at that point unaware of the significance of the labels that would be applied to their experiences, they simply in a way believed that they needed to tell their experiences, to relay their stories and that they would be provided with protection. Many of them were not aware of the asylum system or that there was a particular set of regulations regarding refugees. And we in our research were very careful not to use the labels because we’re conscious that those labels have come to represent certain things about the legitimacy or otherwise of the claims that are being made.

So, I think it’s really only once people are in Europe for a period of time and it may be days or weeks or it could be months but they come to realise that the systems are structured very differently for refugees and migrants and that they are required to tell their story, not just in a straight forward ‘this is what happened to me’ way, but in a way that fits with and conforms with assumptions about what a refugee is or looks like.

What do these categories (as we currently understand them) tell us about people coming to Europe and how they’re perceived?

So, over the last few years and particularly since 2015 we’ve seen an intense political and policy and media debate in Europe about the arrival of increasingly large numbers of refugees and migrants across the Mediterranean in boat. In that context, there has been a lot of concern that people are not really refugees seeking protection but are using the refugee convention, if you like, to circumvent immigration controls in order to be able to come and work in different countries in Europe. So, we’ve had this idea that on the one hand; refugees who, if you like, are good migrants because they have legitimate reasons to be able to cross the Mediterranean, on the other hand people who are perceived as using the asylum route as a way to gain access to work are perceived as bad migrants; they are irregular, illegal and manipulating, in some way, the system.

The problem is that in our research – and we’ve conducted research with many of the people making these journeys – the reality of their stories is a much more complicated one. They often started, for example, in Syria because of the conflict leaving their homes but then found themselves unable to make a livelihood in countries like Turkey or Lebanon or Jordan. Equally, people who left countries in West Africa, perhaps looking for economic opportunity, found themselves in a country like Libya where there is now well-documented and extreme human rights abuses of one kind or another.  So this idea that there are good and bad migrants or good and bad refugees doesn’t map well on to the lived experiences of the people who actually arrive on the shores of Europe.

You point out that organisations focused on migration are educating the public on the differences between refugees and migrants and that it privileges one group of people over another… 

One of the responses to the very negative political and media debate that we’ve seen, particularly over the last few years but it’s actually been evolving over the last decade or more, has been this vilification of the refugee, particularly asylum seekers – someone who’s not yet got status – but the refugee in general. And so, people have tried to remind people that actually refugees are coming from very particular backgrounds, they have very specific experiences, they’ve often experienced hardship and extreme loss, in some cases losing very many family members, or themselves being tortured in quite horrific ways.

So, in order to try and get if you like more empathy, more sympathy or understanding of why people might choose or decide to leave their homes and come to Europe, many organisations have pointed out that a refugee not only has particular rights under International Law and never wanted to leave their country in the first place but were forced to leave and that they need our protection and our support because of that.

Unfortunately, through constructing that narrative in my view the economic migrants – the category that is defined in that way – has often been positioned as somehow less deserving or in need of protection, that these are just people who left for work.  Somehow because of that, because they couldn’t feed their families and they might starve to death that somehow is not as deserving as a refugee.  With the negative media discourse those narratives, those distinctions have become very problematic for two reasons. One is that the vast majority of people who are moving are migrants not refugees and also that there is this slippage between refugees and migrants in terms of their experiences. But the second reason why is that actually ultimately these categories are very artificial. These are human beings who have moved and as human beings who have moved they are entitled to rights, human rights, as human beings regardless of whether they are refugees or migrants.

So, if we want to really centre human rights in the narrative about what’s important in the world that we live in, then this distinction between some people having more or less rights than others which is true in a legal sense for refugees but not true in terms of human rights, I think that’s very problematic. I think all of us would if and when we meet somebody who’s left initially for economic reasons but then suffered extreme hardship and poverty and perhaps persecution on the way and is now in a position of having no rights at all, we would find it hard to argue that they shouldn’t have rights and the fact they may be categorically defined as a migrant doesn’t change that fact. They are still entitled to rights under International Law.  So that’s why it’s problematic. I realise it’s very challenging because we have very few ways at the moment of trying to re-capture some of the things that we think are important in terms of migration, but I don’t think this is the solution.


So migrants to Europe are packaged into convenient categories which are recognisable and easily referred to with a labelBut experiences and journeys dont necessarily fit them.

It makes some more deserving, giving them rights, a right to be there, and infers whos good and whos bad.  A few podcasts ago we spoke to Tarek Esmail, a refugee from Syria.  Hed arrived in Erfurt, Germany, and was granted a threeyear residency permit. Hes working now and looking to study at the University. How does he feel about the label hes been given


It means a lot. The word ‘refugee’. The person when he comes as a refugee it takes many, many meanings according to the situation of this person but let me talk about my country. When I say ‘a Syrian refugee’ it means a lot. It means war, it means a person feels insecure, it means a person who is ready to do any kind of work even if it’s for 15 hours a day just to have a safe place for him and his family. It means a lot of bad memories in his mind a lot of drama in the country where he was leaving. It’s a lot of negative stuff. It takes a long time to talk about it.

Some integration organisations and migrants in Germany have pointed out that there’s too much focus on numbers and groups and not individuals. Have you felt this way?

Let me say it’s just an opinion. For me it’s just related to the way the men think about the society and the way he reacts with the society. For me let me say at the beginning, yes I felt like that because we were all refugees and the German people were dealing with us as a new people and they don’t know anything about them, but after two years I have got so many friends. I sit in the café and every two minutes I must meet someone I know from the German people or from refugees or from any part of the society and I feel like I am one of them, I’m not a number.

Things you didn’t know about Yemen

Marhaban and welcome to the first in a series of short looks at ‘things you didn’t know’ about countries the people we rescue come from. First up is Yemen. In the last three years we’ve saved several people from Yemen and they describe a deteriorating situation there.

In ancient times, it was called Arabia Felix… the happy land… ironic given the conflict tearing apart the country. Political factions backed by rebels and neighbouring states are competing for control.

The human cost is considerable. Since 2015, over 180,000 people have fled the country while almost two million are displaced. Two thirds of the population, 17 million people, face a daily fight to find food. That’s while half a million suffer from cholera, in the world’s largest single outbreak.

It hasn’t stopped people from Somalia and Ethiopia trying to get there. The short distance between the Horn of Africa and Yemen and the instability caused by the civil war make it ideal for those heading to Saudi Arabia for work. 55,000 have made the crossing so far this year. Those are the lucky ones. When smugglers spot police they deliberately drown those on board. It’s on-going, with IOM reporting that 50 migrants died this way in August. Now let’s go beyond the current crisis and explore Yemen.

Music is a large part of Yemeni culture and centuries of trade with the Middle and Far East have helped. Its traditional music is called homanyi, a kind of lyrical poetry which dates back to the 14th Century. Fast forward to today and Yemen is big on Hip Hop. It’s been growing over the last decade thanks to Yemeni-American rapper ‘AJ’, also known as Hagage Masaed. He raps about local issues and duets with Yemeni artists to spread the need for change. Yemen’s first Rap Music Festival was in 2009.

What costs $240 per pound, tastes like chocolate but isn’t? Yemeni Coffee…

You can trace coffee’s first international trade to Yemen.  Beans were grown on the 800-year-old hillside terraces of Haraaz with the first shipments leaving the Port of Mokha in the 1400s. That’s according to Mokhtar Alkhanshali, the founder of a Yemeni coffee start-up also called ‘Port of Mokha’. Bringing a coffee business back to life isn’t easy though.

A competing crop for farmers is a drug called Qat (Kat) and it soaks up almost half of the country’s scarce water supply.  For every one farm producing coffee there are seven producing Qat. So, next time you ask for ‘mocha’ or ‘Arabica’ you’ll know where it came from.

There’s more to Yemeni dress than meets the eye. Men in the north wear a ‘thoob’.  It’s a traditional long dress which comes in a variety of colours and styles. On the coast and East you’ll see men in futa’s or ma’wazz. These are more like a wrap-around skirt worn for different occasions. There’s also a meshedda. It’s a type of shawl worn on the head. You can tell which region you’re from by the way its wrapped.  And, to complete the look there’s the dark suit jacket and the all-important Yemeni dagger, the jambiyya. It’s a symbol of wealth and manhood.

Women are more conservative to conform to Islamic teachings. In the last decade and a half, more and more women are wearing a black dress called a Balto which goes over other clothes. In Sana’a you’ll see older women wearing a large piece of cloth called a Sitara.  Yemen hasn’t escaped Western lifestyle. Younger Yemenis sport fashionable jeans and suits.

One of Yemen’s most surprising features is its city of mud. On its floodplain is a place the British explorer and travel writer Freya Stark once called the Manhattan of the Desert. Shibam is a 16th Century walled metropolis of buildings built from mud and hay bricks, some rising as high as eleven storeys.  But, it wasn’t just built to look good. From the tight passageways, interconnected bridges, its walls and even its position in the wadi, Shibam let the people inside see who was coming and stop them getting in.

Today the city faces new threats. Wind, rain, heat erosion and bombs from the civil war raging around it are damaging the city.  In 2015, it was listed by UNESCO as one of the 54 heritage sites in the world currently under threat.

That concludes our miniature look at Yemen. Next time we’re looking at Nigeria. Now, let’s take you back to our discussion of labels in migration.


Were reminding people that new people dont need a new identity’. Thats Vitali Poluzhnikov, one of the Founders ofIm Not A Refugee’.

Where the Luxembourgish project focuses on the personal stories of people, this side wants to put profession before status. Their website has signed up just over 50 people from various walks of life; activists, artists, chefs, sportspeople, to name a few.


I have been lucky to have a few conversations with the people directly, and to point out a few stories I’ll definitely mention Yara, who is an artist. She moved from Syria to Amsterdam and actually the best part of the story is that she became the designer of the refugee nation flag and we found out recently that in some way the I’m Not A Refugee project was part of the link there.  But it’s great that a small project was part of another project, so Yara’s story is worth mentioning.

Then there’s Imad who is actually a really good friend of mine now, he lives in Stockholm. He wrote a children’s book for refugees and he actually dedicated a few years of his life travelling around and writing the book, it’s definitely another worthy project.  Then there’s Muhab who is a developer, we spoke maybe a year and a half ago, at the time he found a job in Berlin and I’m not sure what he’s doing these days but I’m sure he’s professionally in the right spot. I’m actually thinking now that it may be a good idea to update the story a bit and see where people are at two years later.

How did they feel being called refugees?

I’d say generally most people we spoke with, they kind of understood the perspective from different sides and it has definitely something that has been in the back of their heads and I would actually use the word annoying when it’s overused and that’s the first strong impression. But from real experience speaking with people I think everyone just wants to drop that story and just move on, because if you’re only going to talk about the refugee story then you’re always relating to the past. I think people just want to move on and start building a new relation with anyone they meet and basically start writing new stories, and that’s how people communicate. So yes, I would say the word refugee is definitely something that people face but is something they want to skip entirely.

Professor Heaven Crawley argues that current policies towards refugees favour them over migrantsShould refugees be more deserving than migrants?

So, I actually think that it depends first of all if people want to be treated differently. So, if you’re a refugee you should have the right to choose if you wish to be perceived as a migrant, and then it’s your choice and then you’re a ‘normal’ migrant. But if the situation is quite different and you need some extra attention then that should be a right as well. Basically what I’m trying to say is that if you are a refugee it doesn’t mean that you have to be treated as a refugee by default…


From one project focusing on refugees ridding themselves of a label to one that wants them to own them.

I AM A Refugee allows refugees to reclaim their label reimagining them in positive ways. It started last year and follows on from a previous campaign focusing on Immigrants. Sarah Marcus is the communications Director for the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants.   


I think labels are very important to anybody who works in the refugee or migrant support or advocacy sector in this country or throughout Western Europe and probably the States as well. Labels, and, to a large degree, negative labels, are what is behind the resistance to helping and supporting these people, and not just helping and supporting but embracing the wealth, creativity and the advantages that newcomers to our countries bring. Changing those labels and taking away and helping the public to see immigrants, refugees and newcomers as individuals rather than this amorphous mass of people just coming and wanting help – which is not really the truth at all – is very important.  And so, in every bit of public facing work that we do I suppose we are trying to take those labels away so clearly; we take them away or sort of reclaim I suppose.

We actually have two very boldly titled campaigns if you like, I Am An Immigrant, I Am A Refugee, so it’s allowing immigrants and refugees to claim those labels to turn them around and rather than them being used as terms of abuse or negative terms to sort of allow the people to own them and to re-imagine them really as positive terms.  But we are very also very careful to always remind people not to talk about illegal immigrants which is of course a very widely bandied about term and people use it without even thinking. It’s a completely awful term because as we always say, a person cannot be illegal, only an act can be illegal. So we never use that term, we try and take that term out of the public discourse as well.

Can you give me an idea of the types of people or even the things/traditions that you have listed as refugees or contributions from refugees?

So we have a huge range of people in our campaign, there were 9 ambassadors who are high profile people, some are alive some are not. And they were the ambassadors for the campaign, so we made these plaques in the style of English heritage plaques, sort of telling the story of their lives and we put them up on buildings where they had lived or worked. But then we also have an art exhibition with many more of those plaques but they’re not actually physical plaques, they’re just images of them with many more people, and then we have even more refugees featured on our website. We have sportspeople, scientists, writers, singers, artists, doctors, lots and lots of campaigners, really people from all walks of life.

It’s also important to note that on the website we have a lot of supporters, so we specifically created a function whereby people could make a plaque online, the public can go online and create their own virtual plaque where their name goes and it says ‘I support Refugees’. So I suppose with our online site we wanted to create somewhere where we could bring the refugees and their supporters together and to show that there’s a lot of support out there for refugees as well.

In terms of the traditions, the campaign doesn’t feature cultural traditions as such but I think one theme that is reflected in the plaques, both the physical ones, the online ones and the ones featured in our art exhibition, is the sort of common values and common way of living that many of these refugees have developed probably as a result of the experiences they’ve gone through.  So when you read their stories in our campaign what you see is a common tenacity and determination that they share, you can read that they fled these shocking circumstances and then they’ve come to this country and they’ve contributed so much, they’ve gotten over their horrendous experiences and really given so much back to Britain. And so it’s not a tradition per se, but that is a common thing that is reflected in the exhibition.


Weve focused a lot on refugees but what about economic migrants. As weve found, individuals experiences can blur the categories between migrants and refugees. Right now economic migrants still dont have a legal definition. Heres Professor Heaven Crawley again… 


There are various efforts to formalise, if you like, what we might mean by an economic migrant and there is certainly work by the International Labour Organisation, by others to create conventions around rights for economic migrants.  The Office for the High Commission of Human Rights is currently working very hard on a rights-based framework for economic migration in the context in particular of the UN Global Compact process.

But no, it’s true that there is no definition, precise definition of economic migrant really because that category is so broad as to be meaningless, because even if someone moves for reasons of persecution they still have to eat and survive and feed themselves, they still have to engage in economy in some way. So at the moment we have economic migrant could be a very highly skilled, very highly qualified, rich businessman moving between multi-nationals, or it could be someone that moves irregularly between Bangladesh and India; there is no commonality between those, so that’s the one problem.

And the second problem is that states ultimately have sovereignty over whom they allow to enter their countries and remain for economic purposes. Asylum is different because international refugee law requires them not simply to return people, but to take account of their circumstances and provide surrogate protection if necessary; that’s not the case with economic migrants. So states are very, very protective particularly now about allowing there to be anything universal about the definition of an economic migrant or for there to be an economic requirement for them to take economic migrants. Any efforts to move into regularising that at a global level has been resisted very strongly, even though in practical terms people are moving around globally between international corporations for example all the time.

So, I don’t think there’s any immediate sign of these issues resolving. The issue becomes ‘how do we make sure the people who are in the countries as workers get the rights they need and deserve’, and that’s a slightly different issue rather than the category they fit into.


We’ve learned that labels in migration are very tricky tools. Their definitions are constructed on narratives that are easy to use but ultimately miss the reality of people’s experiences. This means they are either good or bad, more deserving and less deserving of rights.

We’ve also heard how labels are also an identity.  Some argue that newcomers don’t need identities and others that they can own their label and the positivity they can generate with it. Ultimately the ideal would be as Tarek found it, a member of society.

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From all of us here at MOAS: goodbye.