Covering Migration: Why ‘Refugees and Migrants’ are People Who Go Together

"IMG_4788" by Meabh Smith/Trócaire on flickr is licensed under CC BY 2.0

“IMG_4788” by Meabh Smith/Trócaire is licensed under CC

Aidan White

With almost 60 million people on the move around the world it’s not surprising that the migration story dominates the global news agenda. It’s an issue which brings out the worst in some politicians and divides communities like no other which is why journalists need to be careful and sensitive in their reporting.

But sometimes the words we use get in the way of the story and Barry Malone an editor from Al Jazeera has sparked an intense debate over media coverage by arguing that we should ditch the term “migrant.” He argues this catch-all term has become a blunt perjorative that “has evolved from its dictionary definitions into a tool that dehumanises and distances.”

He may be right. Certainly in many parts of Europe the word “migrant” has a toxic quality. In many cases it is used by media to sensationalise and to feed deep uncertainties within settled communities over the hundreds of thousands of people on their borders seeking to start new lives or desperate to escape war, poverty and social dislocation.

Malone proposes to use the term refugee alone instead of migrant, particularly in coverage of people caught up in the tragic events in the Mediterranean where thousands have died making the treacherous crossing from north Africa to Europe, many of them fleeing the war in Syria.

But when it comes to the migration story words matter. There are distinctions to be made that are important, not least in terms of international law and human rights. Journalists who play fast and loose with the language, even with the best of intentions, can damage those people most in need of sanctuary and protection.

It helps in telling this story for journalists and editors to know what they are talking about. The three most commonly used terms to describe people on the move are migrant, refugee and asylum seeker. They all have distinct meanings and should not be used interchangeably. A useful glossary from the International Organisation of Migration explains why.

Put simply, the term migrant refers to someone who moves, temporarily or permanently, from one place or country to another. A migrant is someone who moves freely.

A refugee on the other hand is forced to move because of persecution, or they are displaced by war or humanitarian disaster or some other external and compelling factor. States are obliged to provide them with protection under international law.

Asylum seekers are people seeking protection from persecution who are awaiting a decision on an application for refugee status under international and national laws.

Responsible media reporting on people crossing borders – whether on boats, at railway terminals or simply walking into another country – will focus on the human story, that those concerned are all people in need who deserve support and respect, but they will also recognise that this is not just one single stream of humanity.

Some people may be fleeing war in Iraq or Syria, others may on the run from poverty in Somalia or elsewhere and most will be signing up for asylum, so applying a single term and using it in a negative manner can be unethical – at best it lacks precision and accuracy and at worst it distorts the story, feeds hate and resentment and undermines the rights of those most in need of help.

The responsible journalist will use an inclusive term such as ‘refugees and migrants’ or ‘people in need’ when referring to movements of people where it’s likely that both groups may be present.

The majority of people arriving this year on the borders of Europe, for instance, and particularly in Italy and Greece, are fleeing countries wracked by war and are in desperate need of international protection, but a smaller proportion is from elsewhere, and for many of them the term ‘migrant’ is correct even if it has a negative sound, but we can neutralise negative impact by using other terms and phrases — such as those suggested by David Marsh, editor of The Guardian’s style guide.

The loss of the neutral connotation of the term migrant is not only a media responsibility. Unscrupulous and extremist politicians use it to stoke up hatred and even mainstream politicians are guilty of using intemperate language – “marauding migrants” said the British Foreign Secretary recently, just after his Prime Minister had referred to “swarms” of migrants.

At the same time the use of the terms “illegal immigrants” is still widespread both in media and political circles even though legality is something to be judged by courts, not biased observers. Three years ago Associated Press banned the phrase in their reporting, but many other media carry on using the term while others use more neutral phrases such as “undocumented” or “irregular” to describe people whose status is unclear. Using such terms can reinforce prejudice.

Again precision is important. There are mechanisms for migration in place and people can apply for visas and residency permits. It is valid for media to make a distinction between people using normal channels to enter a country and those who are entering by other methods, but it is dangerous to brand all groups who are caught outside the system as “illegal” unless a court has ruled as such.

The only solution for journalists is to take refuge in the rules of their trade – to report in context; to provide reliable background information on the origins of people seeking to cross borders; and, above all, to show sensitivity and humanity in their reporting. We can do all of that without abandoning the obligation to be precise and accurate in the language we use to tell the story.


Photo: Flickr CC FiDalwood