A Distinction That Makes a Difference

Tom-of-the-coast-of-Maine-2The continuing war in Syria and political instability in other parts of the world, has led to an increase in individuals moving from these troubled areas to less troubled countries in Western Europe and Scandinavia.  In the media, these people are alternately referred to as “migrants” or “refugees.”  Often these terms are used interchangeably, although the words are hardly synonyms. Failure to make clear the distinction between migrants in general and a refugee–a particular type of migrant–can lead to misguided governmental policy and increased suffering and gruesome deaths like that of the young Aylan Kurdi  whose photo lying dead on a beach awakened the world to the plight of those fleeing war and brutality in their homelands.

Aylun Kurdi, age three, alive and well before the tragic ordeal that led to his death.

Aylan Kurdi, age three, alive and well before the tragic ordeal that led to his death.

The word migrant is a general term denoting anyone moving from one country to another and has its roots in the Latin verb migrare, “to move from one place to another.” Most of the time this general term is applied to individuals and families who choose to move temporarily or permanently in order to improve their living conditions–typically by finding employment in the new location or living in a country with different political freedom or social  support.  Migration of this sort has gone throughout human history and has, fo the most part, improved the human condition.

A refugee is a particular kind of person moving from one country to another.  In fact, refugees are not simply moving but rather fleeing their homeland to preserve their lives and ensure the safety of their families.  The word refugee has its roots in the Old French refugier, “to take shelter, to protect.”  Refugees are asylum seekers. Asylum seekers are those fleeing to a safe place (from the Greek asylos).

It is probably fair to say that all refugees are migrants but that not all migrants are refugees.  Refugees need protection and a safe place to live. They first and foremost need sanctuary. Migrants who are not refugees simply seek a better life in a new place.  The immediate plight of refugees is a much different thing than the simple migrant’s desire for a better life and demands a more immediate response from any country or person who can help.

While it may not always be possible to tell whether a given individual or family is a migrant in search of a better life or a refugee in desperate need of asylum, when large masses of people start taking dramatic risks to flee domestic situations fraught with war and lawlessness, perhaps the presumption should be that most are in headlong flight not simply moving?

Is the young man (child) standing outside what was his home in Aleppo now a simple migrant or a desperate refugee in need of protection?

Frightened child in Aleppo Syria

Frightened child in Aleppo Syria

Are the former occupants of this street in Homs, Syria simply seeking a better life or might they have something to fear.?

Before and after photo of the same street in Homs, Syria

Before and after photo of the same street in Homs, Syrialife. Or, might they not very well be in desperate flight,  if alive at all?

Refugees from Syria start to walk from Budapest to Germany.

Refugees from Syria start to walk from Budapest to Germany.

Are these people, who are taking the drastic step of trying to walk from Budapest in Hungary to what they hope is safety in Germany, not refugees?

And, what of this mother carrying her child in a manner reminiscent of a Pieta?  Doesn’t the agony on her face tell us that she and others like her are not simple migrants.

Mother and child in flight. (AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko)

Mother and child in flight. (AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko)

There is a distinction between a migrant and a refugee and it is an important one.  Migrants need an orderly process to move from place to place in search of a better life.  Refugees need all of our help right now!

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