Why the language we use to talk about the refugee crisis matters


To see how far we’ve come – and, spoiler, it’s not at all – in the way we talk about refugees, all you have to do is play a funny game: who said that, a Tory leader or an Edwardian priest?

“You have a crowd of people crossing the Mediterranean in search of a better life, wanting to come to Britain …” “People are really very afraid that this country might be flooded by people with a different culture …” “In some areas, every last remnant of comfort were completely destroyed, foreigners arrived like an army of locusts … ”

The first, of course, was David Cameron’s scandalous comment for ITV News at the height of the refugee crisis in July 2015 (comments that even Nigel Farage tried to distance himself from). Second Margaret Thatcher speaking in 1978. Third courtesy of Cosmo Gordon Lang, Bishop of Stepney, who wrote about the Jewish diaspora in 1902.

Lang’s (slightly mixed) metaphors – army and locust – are still the most common way of describing refugees today: either as a military invasion ( New York Times carries the caption to the picture(for example, which states that the Greek authorities used “tear gas, batons, stun grenades and rubber bullets to repel hordes,” and last year, Interior Minister Priti Patel appointed a “Secret Channel Threat Commander” to combat the crossings); or as a natural force – a flood, an influx, a tsunami, a swarm. Both are obviously negative images, but they are problematic for different reasons. The first assumes not only that migration takes place in some thoughtful and orderly manner, but that refugees have a choice to leave; he is active and aware. The second assumes that migration is out of control; it deprives the government of the ability to do anything about it – for good or for evil.

[See also: How much does the UK government really care about fixing the migrant crisis?]

The word “migrant” (often used synonymously with “immigrant”, although they mean slightly different things) encompasses not only refugees, but also those who leave their country of birth for other reasons, such as economic opportunities or education. Refugees, in contrast, are those who flee because of war, persecution or natural disasters. The first points to a choice that those who risk their lives to cross the Channel in despair do not have. Moreover, both “migrant” and “immigrant” are examples of nominalizations or nouns derived from verbs. This shift implies identity rather than action; the people who migrate are no longer people, but migrants.

Such language conveniently helps to shift responsibility away from governments, as it implies that citizens move of their own accord, not because circumstances in their home countries leave them no alternative. On the contrary, the use of the word “refugee” recognizes and causes conflict, human rights violations and corruption.

The word “illegal” is often used next to “immigrant”, but this is also wrong – as was Boris Johnson’s last year statement that crossing the English Channel is always “criminal”, no matter how he wants to. To begin with, a person cannot be illegal, even if his actions are an offense. For refugees, border crossing is not illegal: the 1951 Refugee Convention grants them legal status and states that host governments are responsible for protecting them.

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There is also something blatantly racist about the double standards with which we use the word migrant. Consider for example Telegraph Heading: “Angela Merkel denies Teresa May’s calls for an early agreement on the rights of EU migrants and British expatriates.” When the British migrate (as they do in 2019) 994,000 British citizens living only in other EU countries), they are called “expats”, but those seeking asylum or “a better life” in the UK are migrants. The word “emigrant,” an abbreviation for “expatriate,” comes from the Latin ex, which means from, and patria, which means country or homeland. An expat is literally anyone who has temporarily or permanently left their place of birth, regardless of ethnicity or class. Yet those who move from Africa or Asia are classified as immigrants.

These observations are not academic: what matters is how we talk about the refugee crisis. There is a clear connection between humanized language and empathy. A study by the University of Sheffield found that after the image of Alan Kurdi, a 3-year-old Syrian boy lying dead on the beach, went viral in 2015, the word refugee has been used more frequently on social media than migrant. And, of course, it is no coincidence that highly exaggerated formulations in the media and politicians’ speeches are reflected in highly exaggerated public opinion about the scale of the “problem”. Most Britons overestimate the number of non-British citizens in the UK who believe that about a third of the population are migrants; the real figure is more like 14 percent

We must take care to avoid simple metaphors of war or calamity, stigmatizing (and incorrect) the descriptor “illegal” and the general use of the word “migrant” when in fact we mean a refugee. Better yet, call them people.

[See also: Leader: A fractured continent]


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