DEFINING HETEROGENEOUS EXPERIENCES: Refugee law, perception, and semantics — Holly Haynes

5 min readDec 23, 2021


When lives are at stake, and the law is involved, how should we — the state and wider society — approach defining such complex concepts as refugeehood within both legal parameters and in the common imagination?

The importance of semantics with regard to migratory movements first came to my attention when writing a piece in which I referred to my father as an ‘immigrant’. Upon reading my work my mother remarked that my father was not an ‘immigrant’. I asked how permanently emigrating from his country of origin in search of a better life would not qualify him as such. After pressing her to explain, I quickly realised that her understanding of what that word entailed was very much shaped by public perception. To her, the term carried a distinct negative connotation, regardless of the details of his story.

The nuances between definition and meaning is not restricted to ‘refugee’ but includes other designations such as ‘immigrant’. This personal example underlines how important it is to consider the practical understanding of a word in the common imagination, beyond a dictionary definition.

The deviation from official definition in common parlance is also evidenced in the way we use ‘expat’ versus ‘immigrant’. The terms have a distinct racial element, with the former being almost exclusively reserved for white, wealthy Westerners.

A Google search of ‘ expat definition ‘ and ‘ immigrant definition ‘ reveals the inherent bias that exists in common usage. The former search gives the example phrase ‘ A British expat who’s been living in Amsterdam for 14 years’ whereas the latter produces ‘ They found it difficult to expel illegal immigrants ‘. This false dichotomy serves to perpetuate subconscious bias, inserting it into the minds of those who search for these words.

What the above demonstrates is that the idea of there being an accurate word for something is contentious as popular discourse is ever evolving. Pinning migratory phenomena down within strict linguistic boundaries is challenging as they carry commonly held assumptions.

With refugeehood, however, there is a legal facet that words such as ‘expat’ and ‘immigrant’ do not have. To be a refugee is to have a protective legal status granted by a nation state. In law, the lack of ambiguity and the closed nature of legal parameters precludes the space for the fluidity of language evolution.

First, a brief history of the term.

The establishment of international frameworks for refugee protection stems from the vast movements within and from Europe during and after the Second World War. The United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) set out a definition in the 1951 Convention:

‘…those outside of their country of origin and unable or unwilling to return there or to avail themselves of its protection, owing to a well-founded fear of persecution for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion.’

The definition remains the basis on which international law understands refugeehood. One major concern with the Convention continuing to be, as the UNHCR describes, ‘a key legal document’, is its temporality. Written seventy years ago, the document reveals its marked Eurocentric bias. It was sculpted by the understanding of those European movements.

The limits of this temporality play out in the modern age by the definition not being sufficiently comprehensive. One aspect is that it fails to take into account internally displaced persons (IDPs) who do not cross an international border. This group is globally significant. For example, Colombia alone has approximately eight million IDPs as a result of decades of internal conflict between the state government and the FARC-EP .

As the events on the European continent at the time shaped the 1951 Convention, it is important to consider the context under which legal texts were written. The prevailing perceptions will heavily influence the framework, but perceptions will continue to develop whilst the law stagnates within its own parameters.

Fluidity matters when closed definitions do not match with the messy realities of peoples’ experiences. It should be noted that administrative categories rarely correspond fully to the political and sociological reality of displacements.

Further, legal definitions are designed to serve state policy and adhere closely to state ideas on citizenship and borders. An example of this is Home Secretary, Priti Patel, attempting to redefine how the UK receives and processes asylum seekers with a kind of ‘ pre-emptive deportation ‘ that would have seen applicants waiting for a decision on the incredibly remote island of Ascension.

Fluidity matters but there is a problem when there is the potential for it to broaden the scope for pernicious politicians to influence policy through their misplaced prejudices, in ways that ultimately serve to endanger migrants.

The media undoubtedly has a formative role in shaping public perception. Almost the middlemen between policymakers and the public, news organisations have the power to shape how we understand legal parameters.

In 2015, Barry Malone announced that the broadcaster Al Jazeera would no longer be using the word ‘migrant’ to describe the people making the perilous journeys across the Mediterranean in search of a better life.

Malone argued that the term was ‘reductive’, and ‘strips suffering people of voice’. Malone also stated that Al Jazeera would be substituting the word for ‘refugee’ in all future reporting on the issue.

Malone’s standpoint has some merits, considering that ‘migrant’ is a continually evolving word in terms of its associated assumption, yet I disagree with his proposed substitution. Malone seems to forget the marked legal dimension in ‘refugee’. Simply swapping out a word for another does little to negate the negative connotations that are growing around the original word; it is like a Band-Aid over a gaping wound, and an ill-fitting Band-Aid at that.

There is a need for such organisations to be judicious in their phrasing and Malone’s move demonstrates an attempt to do this. I believe that my mother’s perception of what the word ‘immigrant’ meant was very much influenced by the newspapers she reads and the media bias to which she is exposed. Consumers should be aware of the stances of news organisations, but it is clear that the media is heavily influential.

There is something innately human about trying to make sense of a mass of heterogeneous experiences through classification. There is also the administrative need, especially in the modern age, to box experiences into recognisably distinct categories. This, however, belies the homogeneity of the individuals that make up part of the group under the category of ‘refugee’.

So, to the readers that may ask, when real human lives are at stake, is the continual, in-depth discussion and re-evaluation of semantics really of value?

Beyond facilitating refugee protection through establishing firm legal parameters, there is the very real impact of poor public perception. The wider populace’s perception of a refugee will have repercussions, potentially dangerous ones, on their capacity to curate new lives in the host country.

The words you choose and the way in which you use them are important. Language shapes everything and getting it right is crucial when trying to make sense of very human experiences.

Classification certainly matters.


Holly is a Master’s student in Latin American Studies at Oxford University. She researched and wrote this article as part of the Oxford University Micro Internship programme.

Originally published at the BizGees website here.




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