The Evolvement of the Connotation ‘Refugee’

To understand the meaning of the word “refugee” and the evolvement of its connotation, I wrote a definition argument about the term. This definition argument concentrates on the evolvement of the connotation of the term in the United States. Currently, refugees are seen as a threat in the U.S and there is a confusion between the terms “refugee” and “immigrant.” In this essay I will explain the root of the word and how it evolved into its negative connotation in today’s society. Enjoy!


The Evolvement of the Connotation ‘Refugee’

The word “refugee” was meant to be seen as a threat. The citizens of the refuge nation feel that refugees are violent and come to their country to harm it. Countries that have accepted refugees in the past, such as the United States, are currently cautious of which type of populations are allowed to enter. This decision comes from the fact that extremists immigrants from different backgrounds have terrorize the population through deadly attacks. These terrorist events have caused the terms “immigrants” and “refugees” to combine themselves into a single definition when describing a migrating population. The United States is a country built on the influence refugees and immigrants; however, the connotation of the word “refugee” is currently associated with the term “immigrant” which carries negative characteristics.

Although the wording of the term “refugee” has been changed throughout the years, the meaning has been maintained since the 1600s, and just until the late 20th century, the connotation changed negatively. The term “réfugié,” according to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, was first used by the French when the protestants left France. The English then adopted the word “refugee” to describe the population that had to leave their country for security purposes. More specifically, the English used the term to refer to the guerrilla people who fought the British in the American Revolution (Merriam-Webster 1). The meaning of the word refugee kept its concrete definition for centuries. Other populations then realized that by migrating to a country their lives could change economically and, therefore, people started moving to other countries to pursue better financial opportunities. These people are called migrants or immigrants. The influx of refugees and immigrants increased throughout the years. In most circumstances, there was a lack of control on the migrant and refugee entering a country. As long as these populations worked and paid taxes, they could remain in the region. The merging of the terms occurred because of the increase of these two populations and the lack of control of the governments globally. The countries with more migrant and refugee influence, such as the United States, developed other connotations to these terms because of issues caused by foreigners.

Terrorisim and crime have caused the term “refugee” to change negatively in the United States. Since 1975, the United States was very generous in accepting refugees who were suffering from global issues, but after the 9/11 attack in New York City in 2001, the U.S restricted refugees from certain countries to apply for refuge (Igielnik 1). Even though the 9/11 terrorist attack was not assembled by refugees, people that looked Middle Eastern or Muslim were feared by the American citizens. The connotation of the term “refugee” was directly related to terrorism because of the horrific attack Al-Qaeda made. Refugees still have a negative connotation since, for the American people, it did not matter if the terrorist was a refugee or an immigrant, but the only aspect that the citizens noticed was that the terrorist was a Middle Eastern foreigner. Middle Eastern refugees still aspire to find refuge in countries like the U.S; however, the negative connotations that emerged after the 9/11 attack has prevented them to find refuge.

The influx of diverse communities that enter the United States daily has caused confusion between the legal requirements needed to be considered either a “refugee” or an “immigrant.” The Department of Homeland Security of the United States defines a refugee as: “Any person who is outside his or her country of nationality who is unable or unwilling to return to that country because of persecution or a well-founded fear of persecution.”(Department of Homeland Security 1). On the other hand, an immigrant or a permanent alien resident is defined as “an alien admitted to the United States as a lawful permanent resident.”  (Department of Homeland Security 1). Both of these terms fall into the same category for the reason that refugees and immigrants come from different backgrounds for the same purpose; however, the reason why immigrants and refugees leave their home country differs. The connotation of the term “refugee” does not relate to any of the predominant issues occuring in the U.S therefore, a distinction between the two terms is necessary to avoid prejudice against refugees.

Political and public controversies related to migration have caused the vocabulary to evolve and change drastically carrying negative implications in the modern words used. When European immigrants came into the United States the term to describe these populations were “migrants.” A migrant is described by the Department of Homeland Security as “A person who leaves his/her country of origin to seek residence in another country.” (Department of Homeland Security 1). This term was used during the 19th and early 20th century to describe the French, Irish, and English people coming into the U.S (Stables 1). However in the 1880’s, after the migration of these populations dropped, the term changed from “migrant” to “immigrant.” The Department of Homeland Security uses the term “Permanent Alien Resident” instead of “immigrant” because immigrants are usually described as the “other” population that does not share the same characteristics as the American citizens. The Department of Homeland Security states that an immigrant is “an illegal alien who entered the United States without inspection would be strictly defined as an immigrant under the INA but is not a permanent resident alien” (Department of Homeland Security 1). This shows how the word “immigrant,” even though it has the same meaning as a permanent alien resident, has a negative connotation. Currently, when the media or politicians refer to “illegal immigrants” it is refers to refugees searching for asylum.

It is completely rational for citizens to feel insecure about the new populations settling into their country since citizens have different cultural understandings on how to relate with one another; however, the connotations implied on the migration terms change the concrete meaning of a refugee which causes unawareness of migration from the citizens. There is currently high amounts of prejudice and towards the refugees from Middle Eastern and African countries facing a crisis. In the United States in particular, with the current administration, there has been a restriction towards the countries that are permitted to enter. American citizens and politicians fear that immigrants will assemble another attack towards the American people. However, the main issue is differentiating the terms to understand that refugees flee their country because they have to. There is a long legal process for refugees to be able to enter a country, and agencies, such as UNHCR, investigate each person to see if there the refugee could be a potential threat to the country. Understanding the benefits and legal requirements the refugees undergo, secures citizens of accepting refugees into their country.

Refugees have a long-lasting reputation of impacting the United States positively throughout the years, but terror caused by a few influenced the change in the connotation of describing them. The term “refugee” used today by politicians and the public carries a connotation that includes fear, crime, and insecurity. Even though “refugee” has a concrete definition, the negative connotation will remain on the American. This is caused on how a term evolves in a particular country due to the influence and impact the term has. The U.S is the most requested country in terms of migration which makes the terms “refugee” and “immigrant” to combine themselves into a same meaning since they both have very similar definitions. Nonetheless, migration, either by immigrants or refugees, will continue to increase. Therefore, it is important to understand the difference between the two terms to avoid confusion when solving issues that involve these two populations.

Works Cited

Igielnik, Ruth. Where refugees to the U.S come from. Pew Research Center.

Merriam-Webster. The Origin of ‘Refugee’. Merriam Webster.

Staples, Darren. Migrant or Refugee? Why it matters what word you choose. The Conversation.

U.S Department of Homeland Security. Definition of Terms. Homeland Security.

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