Why all media outlets need to follow Al Jazeera’s example and start talking about Europe’s ‘refugee crisis’ right now

A couple of weeks back, Al Jazeera announced its new editorial policy to no longer use the word ‘migrant’ in the context of the European ‘migrant crisis’ and instead, use the term ‘refugee’. The justification for the decision, as stridently articulated by Al Jazeera’s online editor Barry Malone, is that: ‘The umbrella term migrant…has evolved from its dictionary definitions into a tool that dehumanises and distances, a blunt pejorative.’ Malone goes on to describe the responsibility of the media to accurately describe the crisis, explaining how in using the term ‘migrant’ the media risks becoming ‘the enablers of governments who have political reasons for not calling those drowning in the Mediterranean what the majority of them are: refugees.’

Al Jazeera’s announcement provoked interest both in and out of media circles. The decision was commended in the Independent’s online i100 with the hesitant (but nonetheless powerful) title ‘Why Al Jazeera stopped using the word migrant (and we probably should too)’. Yesterday, Amnesty International Australia wrote an open letter to the Australian media urging them to stop taking their cue from the European media by using ‘migrant’ when reporting on the crisis. An online petition on change.org is demanding that the BBC follow Al Jazeera’s lead. Al Jazeera’s article was shared over 71,000 times on Facebook and 10,000 on Twitter. The argument is gaining momentum – and the support of heavyweights: in a Guardian interview this week, former UK Foreign Secretary and International Rescue Committee Director David Milliband argued: ‘It’s been too convenient to misname it as a migrant crisis, because it suggests these people are voluntarily fleeing, whereas in fact – if you’ve been barrel-bombed out of your home three times, life and limb demand that you flee…it’s not about being politically incorrect in using the term migrant. It’s simply incorrect.’

For those of us appalled at the treatment of thousands of desperate people seeking refuge in Europe, for those who see the power of the media to influence public opinion (and provide counter narratives to those of our isolationist governments), for those who support the right to asylum and an increase in refugee quotas, hell, to anyone who just feels enormous compassion for men, women and children fleeing for their lives, Al Jazeera’s decision probably sounds pretty sensible and straightforward. But for me, steeped in the discourse of migrant rights and a co-editor on a migration-focused blog, thinking through the decision to use the term ‘refugee’ and not ‘migrant’ by a major news outlet, was never going to be simple.

Why? Because as migrants’ rights activists a massive part of our raison d’être is to try to challenge any discourse that ‘dehumanises and distances’ people who migrate. Among other things, this means using the term ‘migrant’ positively and as a direct challenge to the negative rap ‘migrants’ so often cop in popular discourse. We also use the term to conceptualise the movement of people. In this, the ‘umbrella’ aspect referred to by Malone is exactly why the term ‘migrant’ is useful: it allows us to refer to the complexity of the migrant experience, without falling into the legal, policy or popular terminology which obscures and simplifies enormously complex phenomena. Because under this ‘migrant’ umbrella sit many other terms, including ‘refugee’: a forced migrant who crosses a border (with an even stricter definition under international law). There are academic reasons for using this umbrella term, but it also has political implications. When we use legal or official terminology, we reinforce the categories which so often discriminate or obscure. The reality of migration flows, including in the context of the current crisis, is that they are mixed: flight from persecution, conflict and economic hardship are not easily untangled. ‘Migrant’ allows us to capture that complexity.

Significantly, in the context of the current European ‘migrant crisis’, the catch-all term allows us to steer clear of a dangerous popular logic which pits the demands of ‘good’ refugees against ‘bad’ migrants. The implication of this is that ‘refugees’ are worthy of our compassion and protection and are legally ‘valid’, while ‘migrants’ have migrated by choice and are underserving or illegal. Such a dichotomy, we migrant rights activists fear, endorses discrimination against migrants in daily life, in the media, by the state – and, specifically in this case, at the border. This is a very real fear in the current crisis, where UNHCR claims that the majority of ‘migrants’ are refugees from war torn countries and for whom international protection is needed, but that ‘a smaller proportion is from elsewhere, and for many of these individuals, the term ‘migrant’ would be correct’. If we follow the Al Jazeera example, what are we implying about the treatment of that ‘smaller proportion’?

Judith Vonberg, writing for Migrants’ Rights Network’s blog, echoes my own initial doubts, arguing that: ‘Even if an individual is not fleeing persecution and cannot therefore be called a refugee, their situation is often equally traumatic. Yet Al Jazeera is denying these people a voice, just as it claims to be doing the opposite.’ Migrants’ Rights Network, which calls the crisis ‘migrant and refugee crisis’, insists that we connect the two terms to resist the potential demonization of migrants. Vonberg claims that ‘Al Jazeera’s decision…reflects a refusal to acknowledge the complex make-up of the boatloads arriving in Europe and a failure to effectively counter anti-migrant rhetoric.’ Reclaiming the term ‘migrant’ as a ‘neutral’, umbrella term, she argues, is crucial. ‘Refugee’ or ‘asylum seeker’ are sub-categories providing ‘more of the detail of the phenomenon that must be understood’.

Similarly, but for different reasons, UNHCR refers to ‘refugees and migrants’ in the context of the current crisis. As the UN Refugee Agency, specially mandated to safeguard the rights and well-being of refugees as defined in international law, the Refugee Convention and Protocol guides UNHCR’s approach to terminology. UNHCR argues that ‘Conflating refugees and migrants can have serious consequences for the lives and safety of refugees. Blurring the two terms takes attention away from the specific legal protections refugees require. It can undermine public support for refugees and the institution of asylum at a time when more refugees need such protection than ever before.’ For UNHCR, the priority is the specific, legal definition of ‘refugee’ as it is formulated in national legislation and international law. Making no distinction between ‘refugees’ and ‘migrants’ within the context of the current crisis, the Agency argues, could undermine that definition and obscure the responsibilities, or perception of responsibilities, of states under international law.

It’s taken some thinking, but neither of these arguments against the Al Jazeera position are convincing within the context of media reporting on the current crisis in Europe. And the solution, to use the formulation ‘migrant and refugee crisis’, doesn’t come close to addressing any of the issues raised – and could possibly just exacerbate them (if used by the media). In the ‘migrants’ rights’ argument for instance, if ‘migrant’ is a neutral or umbrella term which we should ‘reclaim’, why refer to ‘refugees and migrants’ – aren’t we then rehearsing the good refugee/bad migrant dichotomy? And, while the UNHCR position fiercely guards the definition of refugee under international law, it ignores the possibilities of the word ‘refugee’ in popular usage. For me, ‘refugee and migrant’ crisis might be appropriate for certain organisations and consistent with their messaging, but should not apply to media outlets. Media outlets should follow the Al Jazeera example and start calling this a refugee crisis right now and here’s why:

Accuracy: This is the most clear cut logic in the Al Jazeera argument and a point that Milliband made very clearly: the majority of people in the current crisis are fleeing their own countries and seeking protection in another country. Any media outlet concerned with accuracy and using the term ‘migrant crisis’ is glossing over this fact: not because it’s wrong to say ‘migrant’ but because we have a specific word in English which describes this state of being and it’s ‘refugee’. Even those who have chosen to leave their countries because of war or persecution (and is that even a choice when they have been forced to make it?) may still be seeking protection from another country and can thus be called ‘refugees’ in a non-legal sense. In international legal terminology people seeking refugee status are classified as ‘asylum seekers’ but that brings me to the next point…

Popular usage: UNHCR’s insistence on the legal definition of ‘refugee’ is hugely important but it does not have the final say on how we use the term in popular discourse. Likewise when UNHCR says that the majority of people migrating are refugees, we could also say that the UN Agency simply does not know how great that majority is. Let’s remember that the UN is an intergovernmental organisation made up of states and that refugee law is a product of an international regime of over 50 years ago…To my mind, if the media reports on loads of people fleeing their countries of origin from places where war, persecution and hardship are prevalent – what we have is a refugee crisis.

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Antirassistische demonstration in Freital, July 2015. Photo by Caruso Penguin.

Yes, this means thinking more laterally about the term ‘refugee’: it long pre-dates the 1951 Convention. It was first used in the 1680s, from the Old French ‘to take shelter, protect’. The word meant ‘one seeking asylum’, until WWI, when it came to mean ‘one fleeing home’. My point: the word is old: it evolved with nation states. This history means that it resonates and, very importantly, it is transnational. People from Hungary to Australia to Germany use the term and understand it in its popular sense: people seeking protection in another country.

So, rather than insisting that media outlets reclaim the term ‘migrant’, I suggest that when describing this crisis, we reclaim the term ‘refugee’. If journalists want to use legal terminology they can use ‘asylum seeker’ (for those seeking refugee status) or ‘Convention refugee’ (if someone has been granted refugee status). This is about responsible usage. I just can’t see how using the term ‘migrant’ is responsible when media outlets are making that choice. If it seems politically correct from a migrants’ rights perspective – that’s just a fortunate coincidence (depending on who is reading!). The term ‘migrant’ has been used in the media sporadically, inconsistently and, too often – pejoratively, for decades. The media operates within its own symbolic field – referring back to its own terminology and logical reasoning. In this case, using ‘migrant’ to describe refugees fleeing for survival is consistency of the worst kind.

Timing: This certainly does not mean that I’m throwing our collective efforts to reclaim the term ‘migrant’ out the window. I just do not think the media reporting of the refugee crisis is the moment to insist on this: logically or strategically. We, as migrants’ rights activists, can and must continue to advocate for the rights of all migrants (including refugees and asylum seekers) and a big part of this, as I stated above, is challenging any discourse that ‘dehumanises and distances’ people who migrate. But we should not rigidly insist on the use of the term ‘migrant’ now. Media outlets are not migrants’ rights or refugee organisations. Media outlets speak to enormous international audiences and hold sway over public opinion internationally. As we saw yesterday in the UK, the state response to this crisis, and thus the lives of thousands of people, depends on this public opinion. This is also why I’m giving up inverted commas: this is a refugee crisis, let’s call it one.

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2 comments

  1. […] are calling this a “migrant” crisis, while others describe the current events as a “refugee” crisis. Consider these examples from recent […]

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  2. […] refugees more prominently—as my colleagues here at The Migrationist have described here, here, here, here, and here. The recent spotlight on refugees arriving in Europe has sparked debate among […]

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