Refugees and the narrative of choice: why language matters.

Here, Sam Wigglesworth distinguishes the important differences between two terms which are often used synonymously, ‘migrant’ and ‘refugee’. What may seem like a somewhat trivial difference actually has tremendous repercussions about the way we perceive the news and these people.

I like the Economist. Sure, it’s missing the hyperbolic headlines and questionable truths given by some publications,  but my preference is for more logical, less hysterical, political analysis.

This time, however, while I was reading an article about the recent EU agreement on ending “irregular migration” from Turkey to the EU, I found myself both familiarly weary and angry at the language used. The article makes repeated references to both refugees and migrants, the terms used interchangeably. The writer no doubt had a difficult job, balancing the need to echo the language of the agreement,  while also clearly wanting to speak about the movement of vulnerable people being deported “back to their home countries.”

Unfortunately, good intentions make for little clarity and the reader is left with the impression that migrants and refugees are one and the same. This is problematic, given that is weakens valid criticism of an agreement, widely condemned by human rights and aid groups.

Nonviolent Peaceforce / Creative Commons License

Nonviolent Peaceforce / Creative Commons License

It might seem like a small thing, ‘tomayto, tomahto’. But it allows for a more insidious problem to develop. It becomes part of a dangerous meta-narrative and our collective subconscious, justifying a pathetic lack of action. Not only that but it reduces the capacity of aid and peace efforts to work. This is because we’ve changed the narrative from one of vulnerable people seeking help and sanctuary to one of people choosing the circumstances of their situation. The former insists upon on our basic humanity, the latter does not.

So, it might seem like a harmless word choice, but when anybody contributes to this debate and talks in terms of migrants, you’re implying that the one million people who have fled to Europe, as of December 2015,  have freely exercised their right to choose their current situation.

You’re saying, in not so many words, that at some point, a family freely  made the decision to pay someone to ferry them and their children across the Mediterranean. A journey they know will likely take their life. Just so they can, what exactly? Steal your jobs and benefits? Let’s get real.

Just to throw some facts into a discussion that has been sorely lacking in rational logic and because the entire world has seemingly misplaced their dictionary, migrants are defined by the United Nations Human Rights Council as people who have made a choice to move, “not because of a direct threat of persecution or death, but mainly to improve their lives by finding work, or in some cases for education, family reunion, or other reasons.”

To think those who are making this journey meet the above criteria is ignorance at it’s finest. Human Rights Watch, for example, released a report noting that that people are fleeing Syria because they’re being bombed; schools are being destroyed; children are being recruited into armies; people are being targeted, kidnapped and killed by extremist Islamist groups, such as Islamic State (ISIS) and al-Qaeda’s affiliated Jabhat al- Nursra.

So take a minute and imagine that it’s you. Now remember that people are saying you’ve freely made a decision to flee. It’s like being between a rock and a hard place except you’re between probable death by a bomb or maybe death by a boat.

Of course, for some people, this isn’t hypothetical. It’s reality. Given that, I think the least we can do is to start talking about the crisis in the correct terms and start referencing to refugees and asylum seekers. People who are “so recognized precisely because it is too dangerous for them to return home, and they need sanctuary elsewhere.”

International Organization for Migration / Creative Commons License

International Organization for Migration / Creative Commons License

Publications, politicians and governments are inherent to achieving this change. However, certainly the last two have the most to lose, because I’m going to go out on a limb and say that they are calling refugees migrants for a much more mercenary reason: They are bound by international law to start affording refugees basic rights. Migrants? Not so much.

Of course, we’ve flouted international law  so much, it barely means anything. But yet the establishment is still singing the song. Wording is carefully crafted, as illustrated by the EU-Turkey agreement, talking vaguely about the movement of migrants, never refugees.

Language has the unique ability to both connect us and destroy us, so it matters how it’s used. When utilized in the right  way, it can be a powerful tool for change. There’s still a long way to go, but correcting how we speak about some of the world’s most abused and vulnerable people is as good a place to start as any. It’s time we met our obligations, not just under under international law, but as fellow human beings.


The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of Development in Action.

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