What’s in a name? The fraught debate over labelling migrants and refugees
Are they “migrants” or “refugees”? “Clandestini” or “illegals”? Deciding how to label the huge numbers of people moving around the globe has proved a thorny and politically-loaded question for governments and the media.
Migration has rarely been out of the news in 2015, from the thousands of deaths in the Mediterranean; to Greek island authorities overwhelmed by arrivals from the Middle East, to record numbers trying to break into the Channel Tunnel.
But how to describe the phenomenon is a delicate matter.
British Prime Minister David Cameron landed in hot water last month when he spoke of a “swarm” of migrants crossing the Channel. They are “not insects,” blasted the opposition.
In Italy, immigrant-bashing Northern League leader Matteo Salvini likes the sinister-sounding “clandestini”, while Poland’s PAP news agency tends to use “illegal immigrants” – a term banned by many news organisations for making desperate people sound like criminals.
Picking the right language can be a linguistic and moral minefield.
Al-Jazeera, the Qatar-based TV station, said last week it would refer to everyone as a refugee, saying: “The umbrella term migrant is no longer fit for purpose when it comes to describing the horror unfolding in the Mediterranean.
“It has evolved from its dictionary definitions into a tool that dehumanises and distances,” wrote online editor Barry Malone.
In theory, a migrant is anyone on the move; an asylum seeker has applied for asylum in another country on the grounds that they face danger or persecution at home; and a refugee is someone whose application has been granted, giving them specific rights and benefits.
Confusingly, though, “refugee” is also used more generally for anyone fleeing war, persecution or natural disasters, regardless of whether they have applied for asylum.
Politicians often try to avoid that word, fearing it may obligate them to help.
A 3,400-word agreement signed between the French and British interior ministers last week on “managing migratory flows in Calais” did not mention refugees once, but used the word “migrants” 36 times.
“Migrant is not an accurate term to describe the flows of people who are fleeing violence and persecution,” said Ariane Rummery, a spokeswoman for the UN refugee agency.
“The majority of people arriving on Europe’s shore are coming from countries of war, violence or persecution – Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq and Eritrea.”
But the Geneva-based International Organization for Migration (IOM) said many people fall outside the “economic migrant” and “refugee” categories, such as children trying to be reunited with their families, or trafficking victims.
“To say they are all refugees and those who aren’t need to be sent home is an extremely dangerous position to take,” Leonard Doyle, IOM’s head of communications told AFP. “We try to create clear black and white lines when you have human beings in very complex dynamics.”
So the IOM advocates the blanket term “migrant” for everyone.(AFP)