Asylum seekers, migrants or refugees: Which word is correct?

By Rick Kelsey
Newsbeat reporter

Image source, Getty Images

The way we all talk about people moving to a different country can be confusing.

You'll have heard the different terms: migrants, refugees, asylum seekers and immigrants.

There has been a small spike in the number of people crossing the English Channel to get to the UK in the last few months, causing the debate to resurface.

Many of those trying to reach Britain are from Iran and Pakistan.

But is there a correct way to describe them?

Dr. Charlotte Taylor is a senior lecturer at the Centre for Migration at the University of Sussex.

She writes about how the media use language to describe people crossing borders.

We got her help to explain more about some of the terms we keep hearing.

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
People cue for support in Spain


The term you might hear most often.

This is a person who moves from one place to another, in order to find work or better living conditions.

So if you live in the UK and decide to head off to work in Spain for a few months this summer, you could be described as a migrant.

Charlotte Taylor says a migrant can be a safe term: "It is at the moment, but it won't necessarily continue to be a safe term. They change over time".

Where it gets a bit more tricky is political migration.

This can be when someone moves to get away from a certain regime.

Charlotte does have concerns about words used around migration such as "wave, flow, flooded by".

She believes this type of language can mean people in a country where migrants are regularly arriving can see them as "products not people".

Then Prime Minister David Cameron was criticised in 2015 for talking about "a swarm of people coming across the Mediterranean, seeking a better life, wanting to come to Britain".


This is when a person comes to live permanently in a foreign country. They don't have to have been forced from or pushed out of their own country, it can be a choice.

There is something very different about an illegal and legal immigrant, however valid the reasons for movement.

One has been allowed to come to a country through approved documents - an illegal immigrant has not.

Charlotte Taylor says media in the UK often discuss immigration and not emigration, which is when people leave their home country.

"Emigration has nearly dropped out of conversation," she says.

She thinks, despite an improvement in tone over the last 30 years, it's partly down to some hostility towards immigration.

"They are now seen as really separate processes. People don't recognise the similarities."

Image source, Getty Images


A refugee is a person who has been forced to leave their country in order to escape war, persecution, or natural disaster.

"It's a very different kind of status," says Dr. Charlotte Taylor.

"As soon as you acknowledge someone is a refugee you acknowledge they have a certain set of rights.

"They have been driven by circumstances beyond their control."

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
A group rescued in the Mediterranean Sea

Asylum seeker

This person could be a combination of all of the above, although they are asking for international protection in another country.

The Home Secretary Sajid Javid questioned whether people in boats travelling from France to the UK were genuine asylum seekers earlier this month.

Some political opponents and campaigners said his comments were "deeply concerning".

Mr Javid's argument was that some of the people were coming from France - which is deemed a safe country - rather than their place of origin.

Asylum seeker is the term Charlotte feels comfortable with using for people coming on these small, often unsafe, boats across The Channel.

"If someone is seeking asylum, they are seeking asylum.

"I was very surprised to see that distinction between genuine and non-genuine asylum. It may be rejected but the seeking [part] is a fact."

EU rules allow a country such as the UK to return an adult asylum seeker to the first European country they reached.

Asylum seekers often say they want to come to the UK because they want to speak English, and because they have family connections in the country.

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