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Language Matters

It’s important to have a clear understanding of the different terms we use when discussing this topic, mainly as they impact people’s rights and their eligibility around accessing statutory services dependent on their immigration status.

Write a definition for these terms and then check for accuracy.

Refugee/asylum seeker/leave to remain/deportation/migrant/unaccompanied asylum seeking children/modern day slavery and human trafficking.


These terms are difficult to understand and place divisions between people who have different legal status and access to statutory services. In the refugee sector, we often use terms like Sanctuary Seeker, or people seeking safety, as a way of removing damaging and hurtful language. 

The media’s use of language when reporting on those seeking sanctuary often plays into negative narratives that influence peoples’ perceptions and behaviours towards those claiming asylum.

Think back to some headlines you might have seen – what do you remember about them? Were they positive or negative on the whole? Do they differ depending on where people are coming from? What impact does that have?

The key issue is that refugees are reported on and talked about as though they are a homogenous group rather than individuals with their own histories, interests and identities. In the same way as it would be lazy and disingenuous to assume all students are the same, or all women are the same, it is the case with refugees. By grouping people together, it makes it easier to dehumanise them and for stereotypes to take hold. Remembering that each person in those headlines is a person with hopes and dreams helps to break down unhelpful narratives and adds important and necessary nuance.

On the flipside, other definitions that may appear more positive initially, can also have a negative impact.

What do the following words mean to you?
Are they all positive or negative?
Can some be neutral?
What is the impact of using them? Does context matter?


Resourceful  Damaged

Vulnerable  Desperate

Illegal  Scroungers

Unlawful  Hopeful

Skilled Brave 

The charity sector can also play a role in perpetuating the ‘single story’ in which refugees are ‘broken’ and need ‘our’ help. Often the idea of ‘poverty porn’ is used for fundraising – denoting people as damaged and vulnerable and in need of support.

TED (2009)

How have you been impacted by a single story – a narrow stereotype of some part of your existence? Either that someone has had of you, or that you have had about another group of people?


We can also add here, the issues around toxic sympathy and validation and contribution. Often the narrative around welcoming and accepting people who are displaced, is around what they will offer and contribute to the country, either in terms of culture and/or the economy. We need to remember that people have a legal right to claim asylum and that this isn’t based on how the host country will benefit from them.

On the flip side, as mentioned previously, we cannot talk about people seeking sanctuary as one homogenous group. We need to recognise that people that arrive in the UK have a range of experiences and backgrounds. We work with people who were judges in their home countries, architects, business owners and teachers, as well as shop workers, farmers or drivers.