To be or not to be… a migrant? Differing definitions and public perceptions of migrants in the UK

Migration is hotly debated by politicians, journalists and general publics around the world. We debate immigration policies and the various impacts that ‘migrants’ have on our societies, but who these migrants are is often left to our imagination. So who exactly are we talking about when we talk about ‘migrants’?

Academics theorise migration and ‘migrants’ in a variety of different ways, usually in relation to their spatial and/or temporal characteristics. At the most basic level a migrant is anyone who moves from one place to another, however, most countries follow the narrower United Nations definition. The UN definition, which is also used by the British Office of National Statistics, defines a migrant as anyone “who moves to a country other than that of his or her usual residence for a period of at least a year [….] so that the country of destination effectively becomes his or her new country of usual residence”. Despite being widely used and accepted, the UN definition is restrictive and fails to encompass the inherent complexity of a global migration system which involves an infinite range of people and situations.

While statistics produced by the UK Government tend to follow the UN definition – defining migrants by length of stay – migrants can also be defined in relation to their country of birth and/or nationality. Country of birth figures follow the common understanding that migrants are those people who move away from the country where they were born. However, such an understanding ignores the importance of citizenship and raises questions as to whether migrants can ever become non-migrants in their country of settlement. For example, would someone who moved to the UK aged three still be a migrant ten, twenty, fifty, eighty years after that initial migration? And is a British citizen born overseas, but to British parents, a migrant if he or she decides to return to live in the UK later in life?

The fact that such an indistinct and differently definable term is used throughout political and public debate is worrying since it leaves statistics and public opinion open to misrepresentation. In a recent paper Scott Blinder from the Centre on Migration Policy and Society suggests that public opinion data is distorted by the fact that participants’ responses are usually given in relation to “imagined immigration” (i.e. how the individual imagines immigration to be and who they perceive as immigrants), rather than actual immigration. This is especially true when survey questions do not define the term ‘migrants’.

Blinder finds that when asked about ‘immigration’ British people typically imagine a migrant who is either an asylum-seeker or a permanent settler and who is almost always a foreign national. They do not think of businessmen, international students or British nationals born abroad as ‘migrants’. The fact that the British public imagines immigrants to be unskilled migrants or asylum seekers will necessarily skew any analysis of public opinion data where questions are asked about ‘migrants’ in a general, undefined way.

The assumption that British nationals cannot be immigrants, picked up on by Blinder and others, is characteristic of a public mentality which understands migrants as the ‘other’ to a homogenous national ‘self’, the mythical British ‘us’. As such migrants have come to represent a sort of “folk devil” which stands in contrast to the “Good Citizen”[i]. Thus, regardless of statisticians’ and academics’ efforts to define who is a migrant, there is significant divergence between official definitions and publicly held perceptions of migrants as people who are simply different or ‘other’.

In the minds of the British public migrant status is often understood more in terms of symbolic difference or perceived deviance from the ‘norm’ than an individual’s length of stay, citizenship or right to abode. As a result migrants, at least in common parlance, are not necessarily people who have moved across a border or who were born elsewhere. This is in part the result of the fact that immigration has historically been, and continues to be, heavily racialised.

A strong teleological link between race and immigration has existed in Britain since at least 1945 (when mass-immigration from the colonies really took off). In post-war Britain, migrants were repeatedly depicted as non-white or, to use the lexicon of the time ‘coloured’. The binary division between ‘White native’ and ‘coloured immigrant’, which was widespread in post-war Britain, is disturbingly still embedded even in a modern Britain where 7.9% of the population are of an ethnic minority background. Individuals of ethnic minority background are regularly assumed to be ‘migrants’ as a result of their perceived deviance from what is ‘normal’ (i.e. White British). Although not always the case, it is significant that ‘migrant’ labels are regularly assumed aside from any knowledge of an individual’s history. At the same time British-born descendants of past migrants continue to be framed as migrants themselves through the use of terms such as ‘second/third generation migrants’. The potential for British-born ethnic (and religious) minorities – who are not migrants – to be positioned as such in their country of birth and citizenship shows just how blurry the boundaries defining who is and is not a migrant actually are.

So who are we talking about when we talk about ‘migrants’? The answer is… it depends. While technical definitions determine who is and is not a migrant according to length of stay, country of birth and/or nationality, outside the world of academia and policy-making migrants are frequently defined by their perceived religious, racial or linguistic difference. Given the range of possible interpretations of the term ‘migrant’ it is crucial that in any discussion of ‘migrants’ or migration we define exactly who it is we are talking about. In doing so, we may be able to limit the extent to which our research and opinions are manipulated and misunderstood.

Further reading

Anderson, B. (2012) “What does ‘The Migrant’ tell is about the (Good) Citizen?” Working Paper WP-12-94. Oxford, UK: Centre on Migration Policy and Society.

Anderson, B. and Blinder, S. (2012) “Who Counts as a Migrant? Definitions and their consequences”. Migration Observatory Briefing, Oxford, UK: Centre on Migration Policy and Society.

Blinder, S. (2012) “Imagined Immigration: The Different Meanings of “Immigrants” in Public Opinion and Policy Debates in Britain.” Working Paper WP-12-96. Oxford, UK: Centre on Migration Policy and Society.

[i] These phrases are used in the work of Bridget Anderson (2012)



  1. Reblogged this on mistybarriers.


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