Discrimination diversity Integral Human Development journalism Media Migrants

On Terminology

The inherently political nature of migration – immersed in the paradox of being a publicly engaging topic but also highly contested, internationally important although context specific – makes it controversial to attribute meaning. As Moore observes, migration is a “(…) contested and continually reinvented concept conditioned by multiple specific, local and transnational heterogeneous contexts”[1].

As a historical human phenomenon, migration comprises economic, dangers of all kinds and ‘lifestyle’ factors in its movements of people. The categorization of ‘immigration’ and ‘emigration’ is only dependent on the position of one’s country in the migration journey: the arrival or the departure. Within the scope of the movements pushed by the menace of any kind – forced migration, another controversial expression[2] ­– we have the terms ‘refugee’ and ‘asylum seeker’. Although they are often used interchangeably, the terms have distinct meanings and connotations[3].

When it comes to the news media, all this preamble acquires much more importance because the media is one of the main sources of knowledge for individuals. Specifically, journalism plays a critical role in influencing public awareness. Notwithstanding, evidence from research literature demonstrates that historically, in many countries, news media have constructed a negative, stereotyped, and dehumanised image of asylum seeking and other forms of migration[4].

Therefore, it is not only a matter of choice to conscientiously know when to utilize the terms ‘refugee’, ‘asylum seeker’ and ‘migrant’ in a news piece. Despite the contingency that surrounds the concept of migration, journalists must reflect on the best choice and learn the terminology. Such terms do not always present a clear definition in legal terms. Moreover, they could be politically charged and used as weapons to dehumanize.

Some journalists acknowledge the difficulties regarding migration terminology and the risks surrounding a non-reflected use in news media discourse. For example, Eric Reidy recognizes that “(…) the reasons why people leave their homes are complex and defy simple categorizations”[5]. On the other hand, Sally Rooney observes that “‘people’ is better than anything: that’s what we all are, first and foremost”[6].

Legally, the 1951 Refugee Convention states that a ‘refugee’ is: “someone who is unable or unwilling to return to their country of origin owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion”[7]. Nevertheless, the UNHCR (UN Refugee Agency) demands the assessment of the claim to concede the refugee status. Although the agency affirms that the refugee definition is declaratory, these people will be called ‘asylum seekers’ until the assessment process is finalized[8]. Meanwhile, ‘migrant’ is an umbrella term used to refer to people moving across and within state borders for various reasons[9].

Besides the use of these terms immersed in an overlapping of legal frameworks, we also identify in the news media discourse the promotion of neologisms as ‘bogus asylum seekers’ and ‘asylum shopping’. They aim “(…) to position asylum seekers and other migrants as super-calculating and unscrupulous individuals”[10], creating an atmosphere of distrust concerning their claims.

Probably due to the low numbers of asylum requests in Portugal[11], the figure of the ‘asylum seeker’ does not possess such negative connotation as we identify in UK, for example. Considering though, the confusion in the use of the terms ‘asylum seeker’ and ‘refugee’ in the news pieces – sometimes positioned in the same headline side by side, as I have observed in my research – I think the Portuguese journalists should be more aware of the terminology.

Let’s recollect that André Ventura, MP in the Portuguese parliamentary and the leader of the far-right party Chega – the third political force in the country – when talked about the Ukrainian refugees, said that they were the real refugees and not the ones who arrived in Portugal with top-of-the-range mobile phones[12].

[1] Moore, K. (2015). Editorial: The meaning of migration. JOMEC Journal, (7), 1-6. Retrieved from:


[3] Crawley, H. (2009). Understanding and Changing Public Attitudes: A Review of Existing Evidence from Public Information and Communication Campaigns. Swansea: Centre for Migration Policy Research, Swansea University. 

[4] Moore, Op. cit., 2015.


[6] Hayden, S. (2022). My Fourth Time, We Drowned. London: 4th Estate, p. 407.


[8] Hayden, Op. cit., 2022.


[10] More, Op. cit., 2015.

[11] Oliveira, C. R. (2021). Requerentes e Beneficiários de Proteção Internacional em Portugal: Relatório Estatístico do Asilo 2021 – 1ª ed. Coleção Imigração em Números OM; Relatórios Estatísticos do Asilo; 1, p. 43.


*Please find the Portuguese version of the text on the next page

*Para a versão em português da publicação, por favor aceda à próxima página

OpenEdition sugere que esta publicação seja citada da seguinte forma:
Ester Minga (15 de Setembro de 2022). On Terminology. Desenvolvimento Humano Integral. Recuperado em 15 de Julho de 2024 de

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