People smuggling

Smuggling is nothing new. As long as there have been borders between countries and laws about what can and can’t be taken across them, there have been smugglers who have made money by breaking those laws. The coast of Cornwall, with its many inlets and caves, was in past centuries notorious for smuggling, in particular of gin and brandy. Today drug smuggling remains a lucrative business for criminals and gangs around the world.

The smuggling of people is not a new phenomenon either, but it is only recently that the Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary (OALD) has added people smuggling and people smuggler as entries. Why is that?

The reason is that with the dramatic rise in the number of refugees trying to reach Europe and then cross into various parts of the EU, people smuggling has become a common experience for many refugees, and in turn the discussion around the plight of the refugees has been critical of the often deceitful role played by people smugglers. Millions of people have paid smugglers large amounts of money to take them from North Africa across the Mediterranean Sea, in lorries from France to England, and to cross heavily guarded borders within the European continent. People smuggling has become enough of a phenomenon in contemporary life that the term has entered everyday language. People trafficking is a similar term that is also fairly new to OALD, but implies something even worse: that the people are being transported against their will to work in the sex trade or other forms of forced labour.

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People have left their homes and travelled across the globe at different times and for different reasons throughout history. Different waves of migration have generated language specific to them.

Émigré entered the English language at the time of the French Revolution, and was used during the Cold War in relation to people who left countries of the Eastern Bloc for the West for political reasons. It is rarely heard these days. Similarly, (political) exile tends not to be used about the contemporary situation.

Before the Second World War, people who arrived in the UK from other countries were often referred to as aliens. Now for British children that word will only conjure up space creatures!

A term adopted directly from German and from the more distant past is Kindertransport, which refers to a special operation to evacuate Jewish children from Nazi-controlled areas of Europe to the UK between 1938 and 1940.

The Vietnamese who fled their country by sea after the Vietnam War were known as boat people.

The main terms used today to refer to people moving from one country to another are: refugee, immigrant, migrant and asylum seeker. A refugee is defined as ‘a person who has been forced to leave their home or country, because there is a war or for political, religious or social reasons’. Until the claims of people on the move are assessed, it is not possible to say how many are refugees according to the strict definition. All of these people are often referred to broadly as refugees in the meantime.

The basic meaning of immigrant is someone who has entered a country from somewhere else intending to stay. (Emigrant, which means a person who has left a country for another, is no longer in common use.) Migrant covers people both leaving and arriving. As with any subject which arouses strong differences of opinion, these words are not free of certain connotations. Immigrant is often used critically together with the adjective illegal.

Concerns often centre around whether the people on the move are eligible for asylum or not. Asylum seekers as a group might gain broader public sympathy, but governments vary in how they interpret the criteria for being granted asylum.

While migrant can be used neutrally, terming people economic migrants suggests they have left their country voluntarily to earn more, to have a higher standard of living, not through force of circumstance, when the reality can in fact be more complicated and the distinction between asylum seekers and economic migrants consequently more blurred. Whether economic migrants are seen as a good or a bad thing and given assistance to settle elsewhere is one of the political questions of the day.

Interestingly, UK citizens who have gone to live in other countries are not generally referred to as emigrants, immigrants or migrants but as expats (or using the full word, expatriates) – a term free of the critical connotations the others can carry.

A new term – Dreamer – has emerged for children of parents who have settled in the US, who do not yet hold US citizenship but could be eligible for a temporary US work permit.

There are also a lot of terms, mostly too specialized for OALD, that are connected with the refugee experience. When I was working with refugees in Sarajevo earlier this year, refugees of various nationalities spoke in English of “going out on game”,  referring to their attempts – in some cases repeated several times over –  to cross the Bosnian–Croatian border in particular into the EU. I doubt this expression would be understood by people outside that setting. Those attempts to move on from Bosnia were fraught with danger: difficult routes through mountains, wolves, freezing temperatures in winter, and often brutal border guards. Border violence is a meaningful term now for the various NGOs monitoring and campaigning against such treatment of refugees, along with pushback: forcing refugees back into the countries they are trying to leave (a new sense of an existing word).

Governments and legal systems use vast amounts of terminology, or jargon, in discussing the handling of refugees. The term unaccompanied minors was widely heard during the debate over how many of the child refugees in Calais the UK Government would agree to bring over and take care of. Calls to broaden the scope for family reunion continue. Immigration detention is in the news again now as legislation is debated that might result in the adoption of a limit (28 days) on the time someone can be detained in the UK solely in connection with their immigration status. And see our February blog, which features non-refoulement (= the practice of not forcing refugees to return to a country in which they are at risk of harm).


Janet Phillips is a Senior Editor in the Department of ELT Dictionaries and Reference Grammar. During her recent sabbatical, she spent a month in Sarajevo working with refugees for the charity Aid Brigade.

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