Glasgow Refugee Asylum and Migration Network (GRAMNet)

Bringing together researchers, practitioners and policy makers working with migrants, refugees and asylum seekers in Scotland

The Language of Asylum

by Steve Kirkwood


‘Refugees’? ‘Asylum seekers’? ‘Economic migrants’? ‘Illegal migrants’? The terms used to describe people fleeing persecution and conflict are extremely important and shape both the political and social response they receive.

The current situation, with millions of people fleeing or otherwise being forced to live outside of Syria, has been described as a ‘refugee crisis’ or sometimes a ‘migrant crisis’. The BBC has justified its used of the term ‘migrant crisis’ in the following way:

The BBC uses the term migrant to refer to all people on the move who have yet to complete the legal process of claiming asylum. This group includes people fleeing war-torn countries such as Syria, who are likely to be granted refugee status, as well as people who are seeking jobs and better lives, who governments are likely to rule are economic migrants.

However, the term ‘migrant’ suggests that people are moving of their own volition, whereas ‘refugee’ clearly recognises that they have been forced to flee their country or origin, due to persecution or conflict. The term ‘migrant’ may also be used to imply ‘economic migrant’, in the sense of someone moving from one country to another to improve their economic conditions. The implication is that such people do not ‘need’ to move, are not facing persecution, and are therefore not entitled to protection under the Refugee Convention, so should apply through normal processes if they wish to come to another country.

Not only that, but the use of the term ‘crisis’ is also worth careful consideration. Nina Perkowski has questioned whether this is really a ‘crisis’ for Europe, given that the number of people fleeing represents a relatively small proportion of the European population, although this may certainly feel like a crisis for those individuals and families who are forced to flee. As Gareth Mulvey has argued, the UK response to Syrian refugees has focused on supporting those who are living in refugee camps, rather than those who are attempting to travel across Europe, the implication being that the UK wishes people to remain where they are and that those who travel are somehow more ‘suspect’ in their motives or the validity of their needs.

Our research has focused on the issue of how people use language in relation to the experiences of asylum seekers and refugees. Although we contextualise this within the broader media and political debates, we focused on the experiences and accounts of asylum seekers and refugees in the UK, those who work in agencies that support them, as well as local people, particularly those in the areas where asylum seekers tend to be housed. What we found was complex, representing different currents pulling in both positive and negative directions. At the core of UK asylum policy, it seems the spectre of the ‘economic migrant in disguise’ fuels a harsh asylum system, which on the one hand offers protection and hope, and on the other hand may force people to experience detention, destitution, and the threat or reality of forced return.

Some local people question why resources are going to those who come into their communities from other countries, whereas others welcome them and even stand with them to fight for their rights, particularly when they see them as ‘families’, ‘friends’ and ‘neighbours’, rather than seeing them only in terms of their immigration status. When people experience violence or harassment, one might expect them to characterise it as ‘racism’, but instead we see that people carefully manage their accounts of such experiences, which raise important questions regarding the way we understand and define racism. The term ‘integration’ is also one that is used flexibly, to justify a range of different responses, sometimes entailing change on the side of the host society, and at other times placing all the responsibility for ‘integrating’ squarely on the shoulders of asylum seekers and refugees.

Clearly, the language used to describe people who are fleeing persecution is not mere ‘talk’. It plays a key role in defining the responses they face and the experiences they have, both in terms of the way governments decide to act and how other people receive them when they arrive. An awareness of this language is crucial for ensuring a humane and empathetic response to those seeking safety.
Screen Shot 2015-12-08 at 09.53.49

The Language of Asylum: Refugees and Discourse explores the way language shapes the experiences of people fleeing persecution. It is authored by Dr Steve Kirkwood (The University of Edinburgh), Dr Simon Goodman (Coventry University), Prof Chris McVittie (Queen Margaret University) and Prof Andy McKinlay (The University of Edinburgh), and is published by Palgrave Macmillan. Further info on the book is available here.

Steve Kirkwood is a Lecturer in Social Work at the University of Edinburgh.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s


This entry was posted on December 8, 2015 by in Comment and tagged , , , , .
%d bloggers like this: