What's in a name? The debate over labelling 'migrants' and 'refugees'

Published: August 27, 2015
A young girl is helped by her father as they creep under a barbed fence near the village of Roszke, at the Hungarian-Serbian border on August 27, 2015. PHOTO: AFP

A young girl is helped by her father as they creep under a barbed fence near the village of Roszke, at the Hungarian-Serbian border on August 27, 2015. PHOTO: AFP

PARIS: 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.

Read: Pakistanis among 150 migrants detained by Turkey for trying to sail to Greece

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 global news 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.

Important distinctions

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.

Read: Dual citizens, immigrants could lose Canadian citizenship under new law

“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 Organisation 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.

Eve Shahshahani, head of asylum for Action by Christians for the Abolition of Torture, wonders what happened to the word “exile”, which she feels emphasises that people had no choice but to leave their country, “whether for economic or political reasons”.

And why are wealthy, white foreigners “expats”, while other ethnicities are “immigrants”?

It’s a remnant of racism, says Mawuna Remarque Koutonin of the blog SiliconAfrica.com.

“There are still hierarchical words, created with the purpose of putting white people above everyone else. Immigrants is a term set aside for ‘inferior races’,” he wrote recently.

National euphemisms

Elisabeth Vallet, an expert on borders at Quebec University, says language is a particularly powerful tool for far-right parties, pointing to the use of phrases such as “peril migratoire” by France’s National Front.

“Speaking of ‘migrants’ is a way to dehumanise people, of not speaking about individuals,” she said.

“Nobody asks why a mother will be willing to take her kids one morning, cross a desert, take a dinghy across rough seas, face tear gas by police. However, this should be the first question.”

Some countries have their own particular euphemisms.

Swedish media regularly refers to “EU migrants”, not in reference to the many Danes and Finns who come for work, but rather as a veiled reference to Roma gypsies who face widespread discrimination.

Italy complicates the definitions around refugees and asylum seekers with a third, and apparently unique term – “profughi” – which describes someone who has arrived in a country but has yet to apply for asylum or gain refugee status.

With more people on the move that at any time since World War II, the debate will not end soon.

“We trivialise these words at our peril,” said Doyle.

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Reader Comments (1)

  • Union Jack
    Aug 28, 2015 - 6:32AM

    Is there any muslim who is happy in their own Islamic states ? Every muslim wants to migrate to EU. And then demand Shariah law. Even if the whole world will follow Islam. Muslims will never be at peace. They will always have excuses to do “jihad”.Recommend

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