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On the Language of the Refugee “Crisis”

While mainstream media shapes our perceptions of the current refugee flows as a “crisis,” anthropologist Emily Lynch urges more nuance, thought and imagination when discussing forced migration.

Written by Emily A. Lynch Published on Read time Approx. 3 minutes
A migrant checks her cellphone as tents are reflected in a window at the Athens port of Piraeus, on Thursday, April 28, 2016. About 2,700 people stay in Piraeus living in tents, a warehouse and a terminal passenger building, as nearly 54,000 stranded refugees and migrants remain in the country after some European countries closed the land borders to the migration flow last month. AP Photo/Thanassis Stavrakis

Images of the refugee crisis dominate public culture, but it is hard to see ourselves in them. Unless, that is, we try. A recent New York Times op-ed, “We Refugees,” by Nicholas Kristoff, describes how his father was a refugee, alongside other more famous exiles who lived and endured statelessness. He argues that our obligation to refugees in the West is to accommodate and recognize refugees’ humanity as an extension of our own. Kristoff presumes that those of us who are citizens of the world are in positions where our views matter. We voice our opinions and actively disagree with each other. This, we tell ourselves, is intrinsic to freedom, our rights as citizens, and to the progress of democracy. As citizens of the United States, we imagine this form of governance is natural. We cannot imagine any other way of living. Most of us cannot imagine having no control whatsoever over our lives. There is a debate raging now about the use of the terms “migrant,” “immigrant” and “refugee.”

What constitutes a refugee? What constitutes a migrant? How are the differences accounted for and who determines which classifications matter more or less? In this and other debates, the lived realities of displaced peoples are muddled. The lack of precision in the various terms reflects a sloppiness in how we have been considering the plight of more than 15 million stateless people worldwide. More importantly, the debate over labeling refugees owes to a lack in our global imaginations – this stems partly from the way we use the term “crisis.” Crisis is used liberally and without precise and accurate qualifications. Does anyone pause to ask: what constitutes a crisis? Is it dependent on the volume of people affected, or the duration of the problem, or is it both? Or neither? Perhaps the answer resides in a more articulate and thoughtful engagement with the question: Who gets to be human? We need to consider how the debate about labeling refugees and migrants takes shape in the first place. Labeling the situation in Syria and the resulting displacement as an emergency is simply inadequate. Old crises never end and new crises continue to emerge. Considering refugee camps, where the majority of the world’s refugees exist indefinitely, is one starting place. Camps are formed and forged in a moment of crisis, but in reality, refugees dwell in them for decades on end, often, without the ability to migrate in any way, and without the resources to do so.

Using the term crisis is misleading and only remotely satisfying for those of us who live outside of everyday emergencies. As someone who studies the indefinite crises of refugees in east Africa, I know that “crises” tells you nothing about how it feels to be living in a refugee camp for decades on end where time is suspended and the future impossible.

Yes, refugees are people who have fled their homelands for fear of persecution, death and war. Refugees are also people who have been trapped in situations of forced migration for decades and generations, where there are limited opportunities to live without risk to their bodies or humanity. The majority of refugees live in conditions of forced migration, namely in refugee camps, for protracted periods of time – the average time spent living in a camp exceeds a decade. Reimagining refugees’ experiences requires an attention not to emergency and crisis, but to how refugees are forced to wait for circumstances outside of their control to change. Democracy does not exist in their worlds. For millions of refugees living in long-term camps, the task of living itself is painful work, full of much more ordinary forms of violence than “crisis” ever captures.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Refugees Deeply.

This article originally appeared on and is republished with permission.

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