What’s in a name: Refugees, migrants or immigrants?

A responsible media should know the politics of the words it uses

ByBiraj Swain
What’s in a name: Refugees, migrants or immigrants?
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The Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, poster boy of liberals and multiculturalists, announced on Baisakhi, April 13, that he will apologise to Sikhs on the floor of the House of Commons on May 18, 2016, for the Komagata Maru incident.

His exact words:

“As a nation, we should never forget the prejudice suffered by the Sikh community at the hands of the Canadian government of the day. We should not and we will not. That is why, next month, on May 18th, I will stand in the House of Commons and offer a full apology for the Komagata Maru incident… . The passengers of the Komagata Maru, like millions of immigrants to Canada since, were seeking refuge, and better lives for their families. With so much to contribute to their new home, they chose Canada and we failed them utterly.”

For the uninitiated, 102 years ago, the Sikhs on board a ship named Komagata Maru were refused entry into Canada, because of a technicality in the then Canadian immigration laws. After two months of waiting at the harbour, the ship was forced to sail back. When it reached Kolkata (then Calcutta), the British police intercepted the ship and opened fire, killing 19 passengers on board.

However, this article is about the words. Trudeau used, “immigrants, seeking refuge, for a better life” — recognizing the fundamental human aspiration for better life, and migration as a means of that pursuit. Trudeau is also the Prime Minister who personally received the Syrians when the first batch came in.

“Migrants” has become the go-to word in Western press as the descriptor for refugees fleeing from Maghreb Africa (i.e. Syria, Iraq, Libya), East Africa (Somalia and Eritrea) and Afghanistan.

But Al Jazeera took a decision on August 20, 2015, to stop using the word migrants. They said, the word was no more “fit for purpose”. Barry Mallone, Al Jazeera’s online editor wrote a blog announcing Al Jazeera’s decision. “Refugees, people and families”, were their words of choice. He pointed out that the dehumanizing, debasing common descriptor “migrants”, used by English media, has become an enabler for festering veiled racism, prejudice and hateful rhetoric. Read his very powerful blog here.

This kicked off a storm in global media on the apt words for the people making desperate journeys on rubber dinghies via the Mediterranean sea to Europe and elsewhere (Rohingyas fleeing Myanmar, East Timorese heading to Australia).

Considering the raging debate in global media, it is surprising that Indian mainstream media never weighed in. A powerful emerging economy, wannabe permanent member in the UN Security Council has been silent on the Rohingya crisis. The current state elections, both in West Bengal and Assam, have Bangladeshi migrants on the electoral agenda. In fact, in Assam even migrants from mainland India have been discussed. In India, where 307 million Indians recorded themselves as migrants in the  2001 census as per IndiaSpend’s analysis, the debate deserved engagement. Some migrate almost 2000 kilometres, including this author, within India. Yet the mainstream media doesn’t discuss the lexicon!

This debate is also important, because, from London to Ludhiana, Manhattan to Mumbai, ‘migrants’ has been used pejoratively — othering humans, implying economic pursuit and ratcheting up competitive rhetoric. British ministers could use terms like, “marauding migrants”, “swarms”; Maharashtra Navnirman Sena could use brutal violence against people from Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, using their “migrant” status as justification. All this only unveils the unlimited potential of hate generation in this wordplay.

In response to Al Jazeera’s decision Guardian did an explainer. The key extracts are below:

“Migrants: A migrant is someone who moves from one place to another in order to live in another country for more than a year. The International Organisation of Migration estimates that 232 million people a year become international migrants and another 740 million move within their own countries… . There are many reasons that people become migrants, but those who move to work or seek a better life are generally termed economic migrants. There are, however, also international students, those who move for family reasons and those who migrate because they are fleeing war and persecution. An individual case can be a mixture of all those things. It is, after all, possible to flee the war in Syria and want a better life for your family.”

“Refugees: A refugee is a person who has fled armed conflict or persecution and who is recognised as needing of international protection because it is too dangerous for them to return home. They are protected under international law by the 1951 refugee convention, which defines what a refugee is and outlines the basic rights afforded to them. The convention’s basic principle is that refugees should not be expelled or returned to situations where their life and freedom would be under threat. Once someone has been recognised as a refugee, they are supposed to be given access to social housing and welfare benefits and helped to find a job and integrate into society. The UN refugee agency (UNHCR) estimates that there are almost 60 million forcibly displaced people around the world, including those displaced within their own countries.”

“Asylum seekers: States are under international obligation to consider claims for asylum and not to immediately return asylum seekers to the countries they have fled from. The refugee convention states that they must be given access to fair and efficient asylum procedures and measures to ensure they live in dignity and safety while their claims are processed.”

BBC weighed in and added to the list of words like “immigrants” and “aliens”. “Immigrants” has almost fallen through the cracks as a mark of poignant irony because one has to reach a new country to be marked by that term. With the Mediterranean Sea becoming the mass-grave for the people fleeing war, extreme poverty, untenable instability, “immigrant” seems done with. And America continues to use “alien” for all non-citizens and non-nationals. President Barack Obama suggested a more positive descriptor “dreamers” (referring to the American Dream). It is yet to be used by his own erstwhile Secretary of State and White House-hopeful Hillary Clinton.

Independent considered Al Jazeera’s decision humane and apt and called for every media house to do the same too. So did Migration Watch and Migrationist.

NPR uses both the “migrants” and “refugees” but prefers words of actions to describe what is happening to people and avoid labels.

However, some right wing supremacists have called Al Jazeera’s decision a diktat and continue to use migrants, always implying illegality and criminality in their existence. One such platform is ironically named Refugee Resettlement Watch. Donald Trump and France’s Marine Le Pen’s sterling contribution to vitiating the discourse does not require repetition.

Eight months on, Al Jazeera continues to use “refugees, people and families” only. BBC rarely uses “refugees” and mostly uses “migrants”, but qualifies with desperate journeys and human trafficking profiteers. Guardian uses all the words, but with qualifications.

My favourite, though, is Judith Vonberg’s take on Migrants’ Rights Network platform, where she supports Al Jazeera’s decision but also defends humanizing the word “migrant”. The extreme poverty, unending wars, fragile states that make people take a conscious decision to migrate for a safer, better life, also deserves humane treatment, international solidarity and support.

Some media houses are trying to remind us of the difference. Migration is a voluntary act while refugees are mostly forced via extraneous circumstances. International solidarity mandates refugees’ rehabilitation and dignity. But the issue is way more complex and most people have elements of all: “refugees”, i.e. fleeing from a desperate situation, “migrants”, i.e. going to a place which gives them hope of better life, security.

The Western hypocrisy at continued usage of “migrants” pejoratively is starker when we see the numbers. By August last year, when the debate kick-started, 340,000 had entered Europe, which was 0.045% of Europe’s population and absolutely insignificant compared to Turkey, which had taken 1.8 million refugees from Syria alone, Lebanon (over a million) and even the fragile Iraq (over 200,000 and counting). And when we invoke history, it is 15 years of interference, bombardment by NATO (where most of the European Union countries are members by their own sovereign volition) that made these source countries fragile in the first place. The current deal inked by European Union with Turkey where border control has virtually been outsourced to Turkey in lieu of development assistance shows that not the Mediterranean Sea, but Europe has become the graveyard of human values.

Yet it is not just a Western media watch concern. It should be as much Indian media’s concern too. It is a toxic but necessary conversation to be had. Indian media needs to be watched too. Indian migrant workers to West Asia are the biggest contributors to Indian development finance via their remittance. How media discusses their concerns and working conditions is important. With Bundelkhand’s parched lands, Marathwada’s bone-dry fields and other disaster-struck regions, many of our citizens are forced to make desperate journeys. To urban locations, construction sites. To more squalour and uncertainty. The words Indian media uses to describe these journeys would be important to note too. Its silence in the coverage of Rohingyas, Bangladeshis and others, and their lexicon would be equally important. We are watching. I hope you will too!

Oh yes, why whites are always expats while everyone else is a migrant is also another metric of the Western supremacist archaic hypocrisy. But that’s a discussion for another day….

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