There's A Sad Reason 'Migrants,' Not 'Immigrants,' Is The Word Being Used

Near Valletta, Malta, on Thursday there was a funeral service for 24 of the hundreds of migrants who died earlier in the week when the ship they were on capsized and sank. (AP)
Near Valletta, Malta, on Thursday there was a funeral service for 24 of the hundreds of migrants who died earlier in the week when the ship they were on capsized and sank. (AP)

As NPR and other news outlets report about the hundreds of people killed this month when the ship they were on went down off the Libyan coast, the stories are referring to those who died as "migrants."

There's a case to be made that the word "refugees" also applies. A refugee, according to Webster's New World College Dictionary, is "a person who flees from home or country to seek refuge elsewhere, as in a time of war or of political or religious persecution."

Among those on the ship that sank, and the other vessels sailing from Northern Africa to Southern Europe, were people fleeing the war in Syria and persecution in places such as Somalia.

It's fair to say that almost anyone who takes the risks associated with these trips is likely to be desperate and is seeking refuge. But to label all those aboard the ships as refugees may not be accurate. The word migrants, however, fits. Webster's says that to migrate is to "move from one place to another." A migrant, in turn, is "a person, bird, or animal that migrates."

The word also conveys what is happening: Large numbers of people are on the move, looking for homes. They are migrating across hundreds or thousands of miles.

The word "immigrants" is not being used in most media reports. There's a sad reason. To immigrate, Webster's notes, is to "come into a new country, region or environment ... esp. in order to settle there."

Tragically, the hundreds who died this month did not reach their destinations.

Note: We know there are also legal definitions of the words migrant and refugee. The International Organization for Migration has posted its glossary here. This post and Saturday's "Word Matters" conversation, however, are about the way news outlets use the words, not international agencies.

Mark Memmott is NPR's standards and practices editor. He co-hosted The Two Way from its launch in May 2009 through April 2014.

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