At every IOFA training, we start by exploring the importance of language. We talk about words like the conflation of prostitution and trafficking, victim and survivor, and rescuing and empowering. “Why are we even talking about this?” We spend time exploring the words we use around these issues because they matter.

To paraphrase a bumper sticker, what we think affects what we say, and what we say affects what we do. If we truly want to have the desired effect we purport to work for – empowering survivors to recover from experiences of exploitation so they may live happy, healthy, productive lives of their own choosing –then we need to reflect this mentality through the words we use to discuss it.

Background Context:

During the Arab Spring of 2011 civil unrest began in Syria. President Bashar al-Assad engaged his citizens in a brutal civil war and ISIS, an extremist jihadist militaristic group, used the instability to engage in ethnic cleansing and other crimes against humanity to support their goal of establishing a totalitarian Islamic state.

As a result of the constant violence and terror, nearly half of Syria’s population – about 11 million people – have been displaced (MercyCorps, 2015). Nearly one-third of the population has been displaced within Syria and another four million or have fled to neighboring countries. Because international agencies were unprepared for a crisis of this magnitude, the refugees were trapped in deplorable conditions without access to basic necessities like food, heat, and medical care.

This summer, desperate Syrians began fleeing to the European Union in numbers not seen since World War II (The European Refugee Crisis and Syria Explained, 2015).


Reporting on this crisis from some of the most reputable news agencies in the world has confused terminology about this population. Here are some of the key terms that have been conflated:

·         Migrant – A person who moves from one place to another, often in the search of a better life. This term is frequently used in the U.S. to describe agricultural laborers who follow crop harvests (Merriam-Webster, 2015).

·         Immigrant – A person who moves from one country to another to reside permanently (Merriam-Webster, 2015).

·         Refugee – A person who is fleeing persecution, human rights violations, or armed conflict in his or her home country (Merriam-Webster, 2015).

·         Asylee (or asylum seeker) – A person whom meets the criterion of a refugee but is already present in the destination country (UNHCR, 2015). (Note: In the United States asylees do not have to have legal immigration status to apply for protection (VISANOW Global Immigration, 2015.)

·         Some youth arrive in their final destination alone or without adults. In the United States we have special protocols and protections for youth who arrive from non-contiguous countries alone. To learn more, read Adolescents & the Border Crisis (Gallacher, Cutler, 2014).

Although it may not be critical for the average person to understand the technical differences between a refugee and asylum seeker, there is clearly a different between these groups and migrants and immigrants. To refer to refugees and asylees as an immigrant or migrant denies their extreme situations of desperation and the humanitarian and legal obligations we have to respond accordingly.

Similarly, news agencies have continued to conflate the terms ‘smuggling’ and ‘trafficking’ as they describe the manner in which many refugees have crossed borders. These words describe very different experiences that can, and do, overlap. To learn more about the difference between smuggling and trafficking visit


Language and Self Determination:

All Things Considered, a show broadcast on National Public Radio (NPR) addressed their language choice on this issue during a segment aired on September 24th. In it, NPR’s Standards Editor defended their choice to use the word ‘migrant’, saying it encompasses all persons entering Europe, which insinuates the term ‘refugee’ is only accurate in some cases. The program also mentions the “I Am A Migrant ” campaign from the International Organization for Migration (IOM).  According to the IOM, a number of clients it serves do not view themselves as refugees, and feel they should have a say in how they’re labeled.

Although IOFA supports the self-determination of all people, this situation warrants more nuance. As service providers and first responders, we should always use the language survivors prefer when communicating with them about their experiences. When we discuss these issues publicly, however, we have a responsibility to name issues for what they are so they can be properly addressed.

We already do this in anti-trafficking work. Because the field describes human trafficking using legal terms that often mean very little to survivors, IOFA does not suggest that providers use anti-trafficking language when communicating with survivors about their experiences. However, when we engage in advocacy, using anti-trafficking language is certainly appropriate as it allows us to accurately and concisely describes the experiences we are working to eradicate. The same should be done when discussing the Syrian refugee crisis. To refer to the Syrian refugee crisis as an influx of migrants is a disservice to those who are fleeing for their lives and can be used to minimize the legal and humanitarian obligations we have to respond swiftly and proportionately.

Putting it all together and taking action:

The refugees fleeing Syria are experiencing some of the worst situations imaginable, and are at great risk for experiencing other atrocities, including human trafficking. Accounts have already surfaced of children being forced into exploitive situations, including forced labor and child marriage to help their families survive. If we in the anti-trafficking and child welfare communities truly want to prevent human trafficking and the exploitation children we need to address the Syrian refugee crisis head on. This starts by describing the situation for what it is – an international crisis of historical proportion in which men, women, and children are risking their lives to flee crimes against humanity.

After understanding the issue and describing it with appropriate language, we can begin to act.

·         Read news articles about the crisis. When journalists describe this population as migrants, write a letter to the editor. You can even refer them to this post.

·         Contact your legislators and tell them you support refugee resettlement.

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·         Donate to relief efforts at home and/or abroad.

o   Doctors without Borders provides medical aid, supplies, and equipment to networks inside Syria. You can donate at or by calling 1-888-392-0392.

o   World Vision is providing basic emergency supplies, water, sanitation, and health services to Syria and to Syrian refugees in Lebanon. You can donate at or by calling 1-800-562-4453.

o   Mercy Corps provides shelter, housing supplies, water for refugees. They also provide specialized services for children providing them with safe places to play and psychosocial support. You can donate at or by calling 1-888-747-7440.

o   There are also many more organizations listed on


·         Encourage your friends and social networks to do the same.




Mercy Corps (2015). Quick facts: What you need to know about the Syria crisis. Retrieved from

The European Refugee Crisis and Syria Explained (2015). Retrieved from

Merriam-Webster (2015).Retrieved from

Merriam-Webster (2015).Retrieved from

UNHCR (2015).Refugees Magazine Issue 148: Refugee or Migrant – Why It Matters Retrieved from

UNHCR (2015).Asylum-Seekers Retrieved from

VISANOW Global Immigration (2015).What’s the difference between U.S. immigrant refugees and asylees? Retrieved from 

Gallacher, C., & Cutler, S. (2014, October 9). Adolescents & the Border Crisis. Retrieved September 20, 2015, from


– Madeline Hannan, MSW

Project Director, ChildRight:NY