Blog post by Emilia Larrachea Formas (UIC Barcelona), a Chilean lawyer who started her doctoral research “Women, Peace and Security in refugees” in 2016. Emilia is currently a Visiting Fellow at the Refugee Law Initiative.

So laws are words, and words are us…” The deepness and wisdom in this excerpt of a masterpiece written by Welsh poet Owen Sheers to mark the 800 years of the sealing of Magna Carta, beautifully summarizes the relevance that narrative, linguistics and philosophy have in refugee and forced migration studies and its social interaction. This is a fact that emerged in parallel and iteratively with the development of my PhD dissertation “Women, Peace and Security in refugees” – justifying the addition of a chapter that aims to give notoriety to linguistics, creating a constructive debate among professionals of different fields of expertise and fundamentally proposes to explore the deepness of new seas opened by Saussure.

In the following blog post, some points of interest are introduced. One of these points turns around the use of technical words that – once taken outside their field – change their meaning, altering the conceptual underlying of the words themselves.

Two different aspects are analyzed: the academic and the popular aspect. In the former, the existence of literature that comes from the fields of sociology and anthropology is predominant, therefore, the interdisciplinary approach becomes of interest. In the latter, on the other hand, the following quote explains the approach to the problem by making the popular perception very graphic: “How is it possible that terms creating discrimination among people are born from the law? Is that not contradictory with the idea of justice and equality?”

This is a question that was asked by an attendee after a presentation on forced migration. Actually, the question is quite interesting. In the eyes of the public that is how it is understood. Moreover, such perception of the law and related institutions highlights the confusion, as well as people’s lack of trust in the law, the legislators and those who impart justice. This becomes apparent year after year, through the low rating that the judicial system receives in civil satisfaction surveys on the efficiency and the performance of the legal system.

From both approaches, the imputation of the refugee labeling to the refugee law and politics is equal. This study proposes to analyze the transformation process that a technical term – used by science – undergoes to discover when and how it becomes labeling. The aim is to not relate ab initio the production of labels to the closest referent (in this case, the law and consequently the governments through policies).

The Law does not create labels

No science that has some pride for itself would do it. Indeed, Law can produce essentially contested concepts (ECC), especially those legal systems deriving mostly from Roman law that did not hesitate to create legal fictions in its quest to subdue the abstract, but this is a subject that exceeds the purpose of the present blog.

According to International Humanitarian Law (IHL), the noun refugee is – and is nothing more than – a legal status, a concept with a temporary nature, although this is a discussion for another day. The status is used in legal matters to inform (public workers, border officials, judges, institutions, international organizations, etc.) of what rights and protection regime correspond to a certain person.

Any other conceptual constructions, connotations and derivations that overdo the regulatory and functional limits established by the international or the internal legislator, as the case may be, for this legal status have no place in the eye of the Law.

Therefore, with the aim of understanding the existence of the labeling it is necessary to go beyond the juridical sphere. It is hoped that this “extension of the competence” will not be seen as an improper or daring intrusion into different fields but as a humble motivation to research, heeding the famous saying: “The lawyer who only knows Law, does not even know Law”.

What is labeling?

Labeling is a social construct that uses a sign, linguistic or of a different nature, to characterize and alienate a person – directly or indirectly – or a group of people.*

With that definition in mind, it can be noted that the person stops being considered as such and starts being defined, perceived and characterized in accordance with the sign that has been given to him/her/them, thus causing an interconnection between the sign and the person who is now seen as the Other, not alike.

Returning to the area of the study, the epicenter, which refers to the complexity in the usage of the term refugee – once outside the scientific area it corresponds to – can be found in the distinction between the legal status and the person who holds that status.

The difficulty that for a non-legal trained person lies in the dissociation of the two concepts (person and legal status), seems to be what triggers the labeling. Therefore, that which is an instant distinction for a professional of the Law today (emphasizing on the current context having taken into account the case filed in 1429, action of trespass against Mayor, Bailiffs, Commonalty of Ipswich and one J. Jabe, where the difficulty for those lawyers to identify the dual personality in the person they defended was evident), is not for someone that lacks the [legal] training and knowledge.

Even though the complexity of the matter is not higher than a philosopher understanding that the map is not the territory or a doctor that the diagnosis is not the patient, it is a skill obtained by training. It is valid to take into consideration that its deficiency, together with the use of terminology belonging to science, could lead and in many ways has already led to a domino effect of misinterpretations and contradictions with the consequent results of confusion and negative predisposition in the social perception.

A dichotomic distinction that would be easy to understand is the case of the civil status because we all have one. Legally, the civil status is an attribute of the personality that informs of the position of a person in society through their family.

For instance, a couple having celebrated their wedding and happily ever after, change their legal status from single to married. However, after some time because of life’s misfortunes, they decide to divorce resulting in their status changing accordingly, but their natural person status never changes. Thereupon we would all agree that they cannot be defined or catalogued by their civil status as divorcee or assume that they are victims, lack the capacity -or it is reduced- or simply that they are bad persons because their marriage failed.

How does a technical term transform into a label?

It is relevant to consider in this section the analysis of the labeling theory where one can recognize, in the case of the labeling of refugees, a paradigm of control of an informal nature, as opposed to formal control mechanisms studied in detail by Becker in his Labeling theory, linked to the punitive justice system. It is informal because it is the society that has generated the labeling mechanisms through different actors such as the press, gossips, the so-called moral entrepreneurs, etc. Let’s focus on the most influential informal actor: The press as a labeling generator.

The detailed study by Gabrielatos in 2008 concludes that:

“The continued use of conflated and confused meanings of RASIM [Refugees, Asylum seekers, Immigrants and Migrants] words, along with the deployment of nonsensical terms and collocates indexing negative topoi or embodying negative metaphors, suggests that the conservative and tabloid British press are responsible for creating and maintaining a moral panic around RASIM, which has increasingly become the dominant discourse in the UK press.” (Gabrielatos, Baker p.33)

Hypothesis: Press media at that time used to generate labeling mechanisms by popularizing the terms belonging to science, in this case, juridical and social sciences.

Once these terms were abruptly extracted (as a result of their urge to promptly inform) from their scientific area – through interviews, press releases and other journalistic methods – and incorporated into the informative message, they were moved from the internal level of the science towards the exterior. It is there informally, upon being received by society, where they transform into labels as a consequence of the incorrect interpretation of the message. This is due to a lack of [in]formation that is required by the receptors who find themselves lacking the capacity to dissociate between the legal status and the person, all of this, in addition to the natural tendency to label. This assumption is based on studies such as the Stereotype threat and the Golem effect.

In ten years, from and thanks to the cited study by Gabrielatos who rang the first alarm bells, journalistic societies progressively began to worry about the use of these terms, for instance: adopting manuals on good practices regarding immigration and immigracionalism, migration reporting guidelines, etc. This explains the contrasting results in the study by Ali Al Tani (2018) who based on journalistic articles written between 2017 and 2018, concluded that: […] the representation of refugees was not negative overall.”

Consequently, a counter-question: to what extent science and media should have a shared responsibility – formal legal duty of care as a counterpart to press freedom – to prevent labeling throughout the informative message?

As a conclusion to this note, a link among etymology, semiotics and labeling is presented.

According to Augustine of Hippo, etymology [defined as the study of the origins and history of words] might be not useful or necessary to understand the meaning of the words. Nevertheless, it can be argued that it is relevant to understand and explain the connotation it gives to the latter, with the consequent pejorative or discriminatory effect in those that gain the power to label, especially when:

  1. The word is a lexical borrowing and its origin possesses an unaltered concept signified as the meaning.
  2. The distance between the origin and the current meaning of the word” (García Jurado, p.26), has changed its signified. Let be the original meaning, while x (current meaning) and s (signified) are variables that can be altered by d (the temporal distance between and x). So, x = x˳+ d (s)

For instance, the American neologism “trumpism” already has a denotation adhered to its meaning, but it will be History, in the not so far future, that will determine whether this meaning changes or not – positively or negatively – in a similar way it happened with the Greek borrowing hypocrite (ὑποκριτής), which originally meant actor, but its signified has changed over time, gaining the very well-known pejorative connotation.

The diachrony, in this case, is relevant to semiotics because even though through time a variation that can be subtle (almost imperceptible to the system) has been verified, the truth is that a change in the structure has taken place.

Recalling Saussure’s chess metaphor, it is true that a chess game can be played from a certain position forward with no information on previous moves. It is, however, also true that in order to understand the structure, the correct process of analysis forces to decipher the last move at least, and eventually, the precedent moves for a better understanding and configuration of the future structure. In a nutshell, the etymology is necessary for the study of the sign system.

Labeling is a vicious form of a properly logical language. A person is a world in itself and there is no language capable of representing that world. Even though we have formed a tacit consensus of mental representation of a “person” by reading a name (legally this is another attribute of personality, just like the above mentioned civil status), in order to prevent labeling when we refer to persons, the logical thing to do is to place person before any other noun and properly clarify its scope. So, we speak of: person(s) with legal status of refugee. This way, the dissociation explained in previous paragraphs is explicit in the sentence making it more difficult to drown in confusion.

However, I would rather leave the use of technical terms to the field of science they belong. Wittgenstein said it best: “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.”


* To achieve the given definition, C.S. Peirce’s semiotic and his way of understanding the signs in the triad sign-object-interpretant, have been taken into consideration. Peirce, Charles S (1839-1914) “Peirce on signs: writings on semiotic” / by Charles Sanders Peirce; edited by James Hoopes.

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