About The Joy of English

Immigrants are NOT migrants (sic)


Before I begin, I must declare that this topic has become my real pet peeve of late. The risk or pedantry and ranting is high. Please be aware that I am also going to attack a few sacred cows in this post, so grab a mug of something stiff before you begin reading.

Those of you who know anything about me will know that I was born in Sweden to Finnish parents, I grew up in Australia and I now live in the UK. I think that these qualities give me an insight into what is and what isn't, an immigrant. I am NOT a"migrant" (sic). It did not take long before the HMRC considered me as living here permanently and required to pay taxes. Migrants who don't live here long enough don't even have to pay tax.


Let me dust off the dictionary:


immigrant |ˈimigrənt| noun
a person who comes to live permanently in a foreign country

One who or that which immigrates; a person who migrates into a country as a settler.

migrant |ˈmīgrənt| noun
an animal that migrates.
• (also migrant worker) a worker who moves from place to place to do seasonal work.

One who or something which migrates. a.B.a A migratory animal; spec. a bird of passage.

A person who migrates; rarely †a traveller.


asylum |əˈsīləm| noun
1 (also political asylum) the protection granted by a nation to someone who has left their native country as a political refugee
2 dated an institution offering shelter and support to the mentally ill


So, seasonal workers who come and go are migrants, so too are animals and birds. An immigrant is someone who comes to live in a country permanently.

Grammar: immigrants or migrants?

With that said, let's delve into the matter a little deeper. Take a look at this headline from the BBC:

migrants or immigrants

The headline reads "migrants foiled as the try to storm ferry". The first paragraph reads "illegal migrants". My issue with this bad reporting is that there are differences between immigrants, illegal immigrants and migrants.

Birds migrate and animals migrate. People who "migrate" – migrants – come and GO. Immigrants SETTLE and illegal immigrants are those who attempt to settle without the necessary paperwork, often hidden. An "illegal migrant" is an oxymoron. You don't risk traffickers, capture and expulsion by travelling to a country temporarily – by migrating to it. No, the aim would be to stay – thus become an immigrant, illegal or otherwise.

Here's how Yahoo news covered the same story, albeit via AFP News:

yahoo immigrants


On inspection it appears that the headline writers at Yahoo news have a better command of the English language than their counterparts at BBC news because they rightly and correctly use "immigrants.

Unfortunately, the AFP article forms the basis of both the BBC and Yahoo stories, switching indiscriminantly between "migrants" and "immigrants". Examples include, "hundred of migrants", "stop the migrants", "flashpoint for illegal immigration", "British immigration policy", "day centre for immigrants".

One quote reads, "The mayor complained that British immigration policy made the UK be seen as 'an Eldorado' by immigrants."

A second reads, "Bouchart and Cazeneuve also agreed on opening a day centre for immigrants in Calais and a night shelter for women and children. Most are from Eritrea or Somalia and are hoping to reach England rather than seek asylum in France."

One and the same?

So, one minute we are talking about migrants. Next it is illegal immigrants and then just plain old immigrants. For example, the second paragraph talks about opening a "day centre for immigrants in Calais". Having lived as an immigrant in Australia, Finland, Sweden and the UK I have never felt the need for a "day centre". What would I possibly do there?

It then goes on to state that "most ... are hoping to reach England [not the rest of Britain??] rather than seek asylum in France". So these are refugees, the modern-day term being asylum seekers. Well, that is not the same thing as an immigrant, and most certainly not the same thing as a migrant.

The earlier quote talks about the UK being an Eldorado for "immigrants". Are they talking about me? Or are they still talking about the people trying to force their way into a ferry? Are we one and the same, all of a sudden?

Footballers and movie stars

So what is an immigrant as opposed to a migrant?

Migrants are seasonal workers and migratory birds, animals etc
Immigrants include footballers, city workers, business leaders etc
Asylum seekers are refugees
Illegal immigrants are illegal immigrants
Illegal migrants is an oxymoron


So if you, dear reader, care enough about language and usage to rant about wrongly placed apostrophes, American spelling or the meaning of words, then this is one new distinction that you need to put into your rucksack/backpack.

Oh, and while we are on the topic, British citizens living abroad never seem to consider themselves as immigrants (or migrants). Instead, they often prefer the term expats. Can I clear this one up also:

Expats are usually immigrants but sometimes migrants

That is the end of migrant, I mean, my rant.





About the author

Jesse Karjalainen is the author of The Joy of English: 100 conversations about the English Language, Cannibal – the language and history of the discovery of the New World, and Roanoke – the language and history of Early Colonial America.