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An Alternative Vocabulary for Reporting on Migration Issues: On Politics, Ethics, and the News Media's Contested Migration Terminology

Mike Videler wrote “An Alternative Vocabulary for Reporting on Migration Issues: On Politics, Ethics, and the News Media's Contested Migration Terminology ” as part of the 2016 Humanity in Action Diplomacy and Diversity Fellowship.


"She was here on earth to grasp the meaning of its wild enchantment and to call each thing by its right name …" Boris Pasternak

They have become a standard news item for Western media: the hundreds of thousands of people seeking refuge from military conflicts and socioeconomic hardship in, Syria, Libya, Iraq, and Afghanistan, among other places. Their arrival in Europe has been far from smooth. The number of people entering the European Union (EU) through Italy and Greece and travelling among other places to Germany and Sweden skyrocketed in 2014 and 2015, throwing policy makers and citizens of countries of transit and destination alike in a state of disarray and sometimes sheer panic, unsure how to respond and provide initial sanctuary for all of the families and individuals that had managed to reach their destination. These migration flows have placed considerable pressure on European societies struggling with rising xenophobia, islamophobia, racism, economic austerity, terrorism-related security threats, and the rise of extreme-right political movements, such as the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) and Donald Trump’s successful presidential campaign.

Although news outlets approach the issue of migration, or the 'migration crisis' or ‘refugee crisis’ as it is often called, with divergent styles, they have one thing in common: they all label people fleeing conflict and other hardship as 'migrants,' 'refugees,' 'immigrants,' or 'asylum seekers.' This seemingly neutral use of legal and policy terms in fact serves to facilitate, purposely or unconsciously, a hostile migration debate in European societies. Even when seeking and claiming to cover migration with the greatest respect for truth and accuracy, news media offer a platform for creating socially-constructed meanings and connotations of these terms by simply using them when reporting. 

Research shows that news coverage of migration issues significantly impacts public attitudes towards migrating people in Western societies. Simply put, language creates reality. This leads us to critically reevaluate exactly how news media cover and should cover these issues. In particular, as not only the tone, style and story, but also the choice of terminology matters to people's attitudes towards migration, we can ask ourselves: what are the correct and ethical words for talking about migration?

On August 20, 2015, Al Jazeera (AJ) published an editorial on why it no longer refers to 'migrants' in their coverage of migration in the Mediterranean, instead using the word ‘refugees.’ That publication has led to a limited discussion on the use of those terms at other media organizations, mostly debating whether to let go of the term ‘migrants.’ This article is a call for a new discussion on using genuinely neutral terminology when reporting on migration issues. It also seeks to contribute to the discussion by proposing a neutral migration vocabulary for news media that enables a humanized migration debate. 

Contemporary Media Discourse on Migration

Research shows that the way news media cover migration-related topics differs depending on the specific outlet and the country from which it is run. According to a study conducted by Cardiff University's School of Journalism, Media and Culture Studies, prepared for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), Sweden's press portrayed a relatively positive image of people migrating to Europe in 2014 and 2015 (1). The UK’s press corps, on the other hand, had a relatively negative outlook on migration issues in the same period, with some right-of-center newspapers actively advocating against people migrating to the UK. Even the Guardian, which proclaimed in an editorial piece of August 2015 that "Fortress Britain is no answer to the political and economic challenge of Syrian refugees, let alone a moral one," has no issue with giving an article the following title: "Libya faces influx of migrants seeking new routes to Europe." Similarly, the New York Times (NYT) publicized an article in September 2016 on migration to the European Union from Turkey using this rather tasteless title: "Refugees Pour Out of Turkey Once More as Deal With Europe Falters." These headlines combine references to migrants and refugees with other words that evoke or sometimes reinforce a negative meaning attaching to those words.   

The terminology used for describing people migrating across borders also differed substantially, according to the Cardiff study, which may of course be due to the fact that news outlets report in different languages and cater to different people. Swedish and German news media mostly used the words 'refugee', and 'asylum seeker.' The UK press used the term 'migrant' over half of the times, while the word 'immigrant' was most popular with the Spanish press. Although the variation in terminology used in different countries and by different outlets is remarkable, the unifying element of their approaches is the fact that they all label people coming in from abroad.

The Origins of a Vocabulary 

From where does this vocabulary originate? I am not so much concerned with their etymologies - Latinists can feast on the origins of the words 'migrant', 'alien’, 'asylum', and 'immigrant' - but with knowing where this vocabulary was created before finding its way to the press. It turns out that much of the migration vocabulary originates from legal discourse and policy circles. The 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and its 1967 Protocol provide an international law definition of the term 'refugee' which found its way into many domestic legal systems, albeit in adapted versions and of course in different languages. A non-stateless refugee is defined as someone who: 

"owing to well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country."

Asylum seekers are, in most Western jurisdictions, simply those people that (intend to) apply for asylum in a country that is different from that of their nationality. Upon a successful processing of his or her asylum request, an asylum seeker will be considered a refugee.

The umbrella term ‘migrant’ on the other hand is not defined by (international) law and essentially denotes all people migrating across borders. UNHCR states on its website that migrants "choose to move not because of a direct threat of persecution or death, but mainly to improve their lives by finding work, or in some cases for education, family reunion, or other reasons." (2) ‘Economic migrants’ are understood as persons who migrate specifically in order to “improve their standard of living.” (3) 

Changing Social Meanings 

Now that we have established the static legal and policy definitions of some migration terms, let us take a closer look at the relevance of those meanings for news reporting. Official definitions hide from view how the public in general, and consumers of news stories in particular, understand and relate to those terms. Apart from static definitions, words have socially-constructed meanings and connotations, dependent on for instance the political climate, economic trends, and popular culture, but to some extent also correlating with socio-economic status, educational background, and of course the country and specific region where someone lives. One must be mindful that socially-constructed meanings and connotations are different for groups and individuals. However, as fringe meanings develop and spread, they influence the general or dominant meaning of a word. Some may choose to go against such trends and use a term such as ‘refugee’ in a humanizing and empathy-evoking manner, but this does not negate the fact that the dominant meaning has changed. So what striking understandings of the terms migrant, refugee, asylum seeker, and immigrant currently exist and how do they shape the general or public understanding of these terms?

On August 20, 2015, Al Jazeera rocked global media outlets when it announced that it would no longer use the term 'migrant' for people migrating in the Mediterranean. Barry Malone, an online editor at AJ English, explains that: 

"[t]he umbrella term migrant is no longer fit for purpose when it comes to describing the horror unfolding in the Mediterranean. It has evolved from its dictionary definitions into a tool that dehumanizes and distances, a blunt pejorative." (4) 

Intended as a neutral umbrella term, 'migrant' has become largely synonymous with 'economic migrant.' For some, the term evokes images of benefit-seeking travelers on a mission to steal jobs and send remittances to their countries of origin, essentially draining the West of employment and capital. Migrants often do not understand the local language and culture, nor will they make an effort to acquaint themselves with either. Societies are dealing with imposters, or so the sentiment goes.

Even though the term 'refugee' refers to a protected status under international law, its socially-constructed meaning too has suffered from the attachment of negative connotations. The refugee in the West traditionally recalls images of helpless foreigners, who lack agency to improve their own situation. Helplessness in need of altruism. In the last two years or so, a layer of meaning has been added to that, influenced by the large number of people seeking refuge in Europe, as we have seen for example in Italy, Greece, and of course Germany ("Wir schaffen das!"). The large number of Syrians, Afghans and others who reached Europe has created serious reasons for concern. Not only do they have to be housed and taught the local language, they also perpetrate violence such as the infamous episode occurring on New Year's Eve 2015/2016 in Cologne, Germany, which involved sexual assault and rape. 

And after the Paris attacks in November 2015, it became clear that several of the terrorists entered the European Union by posing as refugees, causing grave security concerns among local populations and government officials alike about who were actually entering Europe in those migration flows. Illustrative is the party program of Dutch anti-Islam and anti-immigration politician Geert Wilders, which states as its first election promise: “Zero additional asylum seekers and no more immigrants from Islamic countries: border closed. Revoke all temporary residence permits. Asylum reception centers are to be closed.” (5) The preamble states: “Enough of mass immigration and asylum, terror, violence, and insecurity.” In polls dated Nov. 13, 2016, approximately 20% of the Dutch electorate would vote for his party (6).  

 Refugees are, generally speaking, no longer just perceived as innocent people fleeing war and persecution, in dire need of sanctuary. The refugee is also a threat to (national) identity and (economic) security. As Owen Jones writes in an opinion piece in The Guardian, many seem to have forgotten that refugees are also humans (7). In sum, these terms dehumanize fellow human beings by allowing news consumers to project socially-constructed meanings of these terms, even if they have a stable legal or policy meaning. Their use stimulates in-group and out-group thinking and they have become "highly politicized, associated with crisis and signifying threat," as Judith Vonberg states (8). Some journalists, such as Jamie Kirchick, a Fellow with the Foreign Policy Institute, insist that the terms ‘migrant’ and ‘refugee’ are “value-neutral terms.” (9) In addition, these nouns allow people to project onto them whatever feelings they harbor against migration, thereby influencing the general social meaning of the word.    

News Effects: News Media and Public Opinion  

Of course, labeling by news organizations is understandable in light of the modern (social) media landscape and political environment in which these organizations operate. In today's fast-moving and fast-changing societies, information should be as succinct and clear-cut as possible. Headlines and news quotes preferably fit 140-character tweets and catchy terms serve to get readers' attention. News organizations must fight for attention in the era of the constantly shrinking concentration span.    

It also seems part of human nature to want to label every person we come across so as to make sense of the world around us.  This we can call the human urge for categorization, labeling, or lexicalization. Loosely speaking with Boris Pasternak, we seek "to call each thing by its right name." But what then is something's or someone’s right name? Does one invoke dictionary and legal definitions or should one instead take stock of the socially-constructed meanings and connotations attached to a term to determine whether something is its 'right' name and whether it is 'right' to use it when reporting a story? Now, if we recognize the real-life impact that coverage by news media has on public attitudes towards others, we are to accept that we are treading ethical waters. And if we acknowledge that the social meaning(s) of words change(s) continuously, surely it would be nonsensical to adopt a static approach to naming things, not to mention people. This means that choices will have to be made as to what is the right way for covering migration issues, including the correct vocabulary to use. Let us indeed have a discussion within and between media organizations, as well as with relevant stakeholders such as media watchdogs, NGOs, and the general public about the right migration vocabulary.   

IRIN, a news agency for humanitarian news, asked the rhetorical question in an article dated August 31, 2015, whether having a language debate is not a dangerous distraction from the actual issues, namely dealing with smugglers and traffickers, and the rising death toll of migration in the Mediterranean (10). But the answer to this question is not as clear-cut as it may seem on first sight. The authors of the 2015 Cardiff study commissioned by UNHCR explain that:   

“[i]t is impossible to ignore the role of the mass media in influencing public and elite political attitudes towards asylum and migration. The mass media can set agendas and frame debates. They provide the information which citizens use to make sense of the world and their place within it." (11)  

Jean Chalaby, a sociologist at the London School of Economics, speaks of the news media's "cultural authority." They possess authority which is embedded in our culture and is sustained by the belief that they speak truth to power and share and represent events to the people (12). The idea that news organizations simply represent events to us and that they are 'on the good side' because of their perceived critical stance towards the establishment and institutions, lends them great credibility. But news media's influence does not end with setting agendas and framing debates.  

The salient issue here is that the media also reinforces negative attitudes by using a static migration vocabulary that comes with negative connotations. News organizations use language, spoken or written, often, in addition to visuals, as their instruments. That language, as we have seen, carries with it more in terms of meaning than its dictionary or legal definition. News media effectively provide a platform for socially-constructed meanings to reverberate across society, including through inter-personal communication.    

Murray Edelman, the late American political scientist, explained that words, especially political terms such as 'migrant' and 'refugee,' are 'condensation symbols': they evoke emotions. Connotations, including the emotions they arouse, provide context for interpretation and content for narrative-building. "Words that convey an exaggerated sense of threat can fuel anti-immigration sentiment and a climate of intolerance and xenophobia," Alexander Betts, director of the Refugee Studies Center at Oxford University, told WorldViews recently (13).   

The Semantic Debate Within the Media Industry: What Are They?

As briefly mentioned, Al Jazeera’s decided in August 2015 that it would no longer refer to “Mediterranean migrants.” It is clear from their editorial that the term 'migrant' has become controversial to say the least. Saying goodbye to the word which is supposedly the umbrella term for describing migrating people, Mr. Malone cites deep concern over the fact that 'migrants' have come to be seen as a "nuisance" when they reach their destination and as "numbers" when they die on the Mediterranean Sea. 'Refugee' would therefore instead be used, "where appropriate."

The announcement led other news outlets to publicly state their policy on the topic, although those statements often bore few signs of an inter-outlet discussion, nor of critical self-reflection. Dutch newspaper NRC, while noting Al Jazeera's initiative, decided to continue using 'migrant' as the umbrella term (14). The Guardian, through its production editor David Marsh, made it clear that it will maintain the word 'migrant' as "a general expression to cover people who for whatever reason have moved, or are moving, from the country of which they are nationals to another." It noted however that 'refugees', 'displaced people', and 'asylum seekers' have clear definitions and are therefore preferred (15). The Washington Post  and French newspaper Le Monde  write along the same lines (16) (17). 

Three weeks prior to the AJ announcement, then public editor with the NYT Margaret Sullivan answered readers' questions on the NYT’s use of the refugee-migrant dichotomy. In an article authored by Ms. Sullivan, NYT editor for international news, Joseph Kahn, responded that "we have used the term migrant rather than refugee when referring in a blanket sense to the full wave of people seeking entry into Europe" and that "[w]e have sought to use the term refugee when the bulk of people in a sub-group of migrants we are writing about are likely to qualify as refugees entitled to legal protection." (18) The New York Times Manual on Style and Usage of 2015 does regretfully, however, not contain entries under 'refugee' or 'migrant.' (19) An editor at the NYT declined to comment on the newspaper's usage policy. 

Judith Vonberg, a PhD candidate at the University of East Anglia and a freelance journalist, argued in an op-ed piece in the Huffington Post that we should "reclaim" the term migrant as a neutral descriptor which covers the situation of everyone who migrates (20). UNHCR, not a media organization but one of the most important international organizations dealing with migration issues, posted a statement on its website in July 2016 in which it explained the importance of the migrant/refugee distinction and said it would use 'refugees and migrants' as a single label "when referring to movements of people by sea or in other circumstances where we think both groups may be present," including in the Mediterranean (21). The United Nations News Centre follows the same approach.   

The discussion is reminiscent of earlier industry debates over use of the term 'illegal immigrant' in 2013 and 2014. On April 2, 2013, The Associated Press revealed that it would no longer use the word 'illegal' for describing persons (leaving only "illegal actions"), in an effort to engage less in the labeling of people (22).  The organization had earlier decided to do the same with medical labels, calling for instance someone "diagnosed with schizophrenia," rather than "schizophrenic." The NYT at the time changed its usage guidelines by encouraging reporters and editors to use alternatives, but not banning the use of the term 'illegal migrant.' (23) Yet, whereas the debates over ‘illegal migrants’ was rather productive, the discussions over the other terms in the migration vocabulary have generally not led to tangible outcomes.  

An Alternative Vocabulary: Recognizing Shared Humanity

Dr. Melissa Phillips, an Honorary Fellow at the University of Melbourne, although not referring specifically to the news media, stated in a guest post on the Migrants at Sea blog that it is time that we should start using more technically accurate and relevant labels to describe migrating people (24). The limited debate on a correct vocabulary shows a preoccupation with choosing one technical term over another or creating new ones that accurately describe someone's situation. Robert Friedman, senior editor with Bloomberg News, states in an interview that “news organizations don’t have to be constrained by legalistic terminology.” (25) So what if we abandon completely the existing vocabulary and prevent new negative connotations from attaching to new technical terms?

Instead of introducing new terminology, news media can instead refer to 'people,' 'women,' 'men,' 'children,' 'sons,' 'daughters,' etc. These general terms that we use to describe all kinds of people on a daily basis can be supplemented with an extended phrase, such as 'the man who came from Libya,' or 'these people who fled Syria.' Social psychology research tells us that people are more inclined to recognize the fellow humanity of someone who is described in this way, as this language avoids the connotations that blemish technical terms. The new vocabulary also makes explicit elements of shared or relatable identity, for example as someone’s daughter or father. As such, the proposed vocabulary is neutral in the sense that it does not invite connotations other than those that attach to words such as ‘people’, ‘wife’, ‘son’, etc. 

This new vocabulary is also much more accurate than speaking of 'migrants' and 'refugees,' as it is all but a self-executing task to distinguish between those migrating on the basis of intentions, especially considering that different groups of people often travel in large groups of people from various countries. Ultimately, a government agency or a local court in the country of destination determines the legal status of incoming persons. As Kristy Siegfried notes: "We have to remember that until there is a fair procedure conducted for each person, we really don't know if the person is a refugee or not." (26) And while it may be technically and legally correct to refer to migrants in all such instances, this is problematic because of the feelings this evokes among certain groups and increasingly among the general public. The proposed vocabulary, on the other hand, does not require a premature judgment by news media on someone’s motives for migration.

Media Outlets as Moral Agents: Let’s Have this Discussion 

As has been discussed, the socially-constructed meanings of the current migration terminology are problematic because of their effects on people’s attitudes, in particular on the dehumanization of people migrating to another country. Owing to the effects of their work on public opinion and ultimately on people's lives, news media are not only commercial parties, but also moral agents with moral responsibilities. The Associated Press and AJ have acknowledged so much with their decisions to stop using the words 'illegal immigrant' and 'migrant' respectively. Likewise, the Guardian's David Marsh writes: "Politically charged expressions such as “economic migrants”, “genuine refugees” or “illegal asylum seekers” should have no part in our coverage. This is a story about humanity. Reporting it should be humane as well as accurate." (27) Roy Peter Clark, Senior Scholar with the Poynter Institute for Media Studies in St. Petersburg, Florida, remarks pointedly: "[t]he goal for civilized nations should be the preservation of life, especially when the stakeholders, including little children, are so vulnerable. I know of no ethical imperative that requires journalists to be objective in matters of life and death." (28) 

My objective is to get the media industry to think critically and to self-reflect on their use of words, especially when dealing with a humanitarian situation in which the stakes for individuals are so high. As Robert Friedman, the Bloomberg News editor, stated: “It’s a good idea for media organizations to at least think about it and address this question.” (29) In my opinion discussions within news organizations on a truly neutral migration vocabulary, such as the one proposed in this article, is indeed the best way forward. This is not a plea for uncontrolled migration, but an appeal for media coverage of migration issues that recognizes people's shared humanity in order to have a more humanized discussion about migration to Western countries. 


•     •     • 

About the Author 

Mike Videler is an international lawyer and 2017 Lantos-Humanity in Action Congressional Fellow, originally from the Netherlands. Previously, he was a Research Associate with the Public International Law & Policy Group, and interned with the Netherlands Permanent Representation to the UN at Geneva. Mike is passionate about international dispute settlement, and equality and diversity issues. He holds an LLM in international law from the University of Amsterdam, and an LLB in Dutch Law and BA in Liberal Arts from Utrecht University. Starting in September 2017, Mike will pursue a PhD in international law at the European University Institute in Florence, Italy. 


1. Mike Berry, Inaki Garcia-Blanco, and Kerry Moore, “Press Coverage of the Refugee and Migrant Crisis in the EU: A Content Analysis of Five European Countries,” Cardiff School of Journalism, Media and Cultural Studies, 7-12, accessed Aug. 15, 2016, http://www.unhcr.org/56bb369c9.html. 

2. Adrian Edwards, “UNHCR Viewpoint: ‘Refugee’ or ‘migrant’ – Which is Right?,” United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, accessed Aug. 15, 2016, http://www.unhcr.org/news/latest/2016/7/55df0e556/unhcr-viewpoint-refugee-migrant-right.html.

3. Compact Oxford English Dictionary for Students, “Economic Migrant,” (Oxford University Press 2006).

4. Barry Malone, “Why Al Jazeera Will Not Say Mediterranean ‘Migrants’,” accessed Aug. 8, 2016, http://www.aljazeera.com/blogs/editors-blog/2015/08/al-jazeera-mediterranean-migrants-150820082226309.html. 

5. Concept-Verkiezingsprogramma PVV 2017-2021, accessed Nov. 13, 2016, https://www.pvv.nl/index.php/visie.html.

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8. Judith Vonberg, “Why We Need a Supranational Approach at the U.N. Migration Summit,” accessed Aug. 23, 2016, https://www.newsdeeply.com/refugees/op-eds/2016/08/24/why-we-need-a-supranational-approach-at-the-u-n-migration-summit. 

9. Interview with Jamie Kirchick, Fellow with the Foreign Policy Institute, via Skype on Nov. 12, 2016. 

10. IRIN, “Debates over Language: A Dangerous Distraction?”, accessed Oct. 3, 2016, http://www.irinnews.org/analysis/2015/08/31/debates-over-language-dangerous-distraction. 

11. Berry, Garcia-Blanco, and Moore, “Press Coverage,” 5.

12. Jean Chalaby, The Invention of Journalism (Palgrave MacMillan 1998).

13. Adam Taylor, “Is it Time to Ditch the Word ‘Migrant’?”, accessed Sept. 9, 2016, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/worldviews/wp/2015/08/24/is-it-time-to-ditch-the-word-migrant. 

14. Marc Leijendekker, “Vluchteling, Asielzoeker of Migrant: Een Beladen Keuze,” accessed Oct. 6, 2016, https://www.nrc.nl/nieuws/2015/09/02/vluchteling-asielzoeker-of-migrant-een-belade-1530993-a868928. 

15. David Marsh, “We Deride Them as ‘Migrants’. Why Not Call Them People?”, accessed Oct. 8, 2016, https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2015/aug/28/migrants-people-refugees-humanity. 

16. Chalaby, The Invention of Journalism.  

17. Lucien Jedwab, “Migrant, Exilé, Réfugié : Les Mots pour le Dire," accessed Sept. 15, 2016,  http://www.lemonde.fr/immigration-et-diversite/article/2015/09/04/migrant-exile-refugie-les-mots-pour-le-dire_4745562_1654200.html. 

18. Liz Spayd, “Prep-School Sex, Refugees and Clarence Thomas: Rounding up Reader Concerns,” accessed Oct. 17, 2016, http://publiceditor.blogs.nytimes.com/2015/09/01/prep-school-sex-refugees-and-clarence-thomas-rounding-up-reader-concerns. 

19. Allan M. Siegal and William G. Connolly, The New York Times Manual of Style and Usage (NYT 2015).  

20. Judith Vonberg, “Al Jazeera Will Not Say Mediterranean ‘Migrants’ But We Should,” accessed Sept. 4, 2016, http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/judith-vonberg/al-jazeera-migrants_b_8036950.html?utm_hp_ref=tw. 

21. Edwards, “UNHCR Viewpoint.”

22. Paul Colford, “Illegal Immigrant Is No More,” accessed Oct. 12, 2016, https://blog.ap.org/announcements/illegal-immigrant-no-more. 

23. Christine Haughney, “New York Times Shifts on ‘Illegal Immigrant,’ but Doesn’t Ban the Use,” accessed Aug. 8, 2016, http://www.nytimes.com/2013/04/24/business/media/the-times-shifts-on-illegal-immigrant-but-doesnt-ban-the-use.html?pagewanted=all&_r=1. 

24. Melissa Phillips, "Guest Post: The Effect of Negative Labelling – Why Are We still Talking about ‘Migrants’?”, accessed Oct. 7, 2016, https://migrantsatsea.org/2014/07/01/guest-post-the-effect-of-negative-labelling-why-are-we-still-talking-about-migrants. 

25. Interview with Robert Friedman, Editor with Bloomberg News, via Skype on Sept. 30, 2016. 

26. Kristy Siegfried, “Refugee Versus Migrant: Time for a New Label?,” accessed Sept. 18, 2016, http://www.irinnews.org/analysis/2015/06/15/refugee-versus-migrant-time-new-label.

27. Marsh, “We Deride Them as ‘Migrants.’”

28. Roy Peter Clark, “The Language of Migration: Refugee vs. Migrant,” accessed Sept. 18, 2016, http://www.poynter.org/2015/the-language-of-migration-refugee-vs-migrant/368263/. 

29. Interview with Robert Friedman, Sept. 30, 2016. 

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