10th June 2020
By Hannah Storm

Refugees, migrants, people: why words really matter in our reporting

By Guy De Launey

The story dominated the international news agenda for weeks on end. Heart-rending front-page images of needless deaths swung public opinion. A coordinated approach by the members of the European Union was conspicuous by its absence. Correspondents scrambled to cover the daily developments as the focus of the reporting shifted from one country to another.

I was one of them. And the story was not Covid-19 but the European refugee crisis of 2015. The Western Balkans became the focus of international attention as more than a million people made their way up the peninsula towards central, western and northern Europe.

The numbers may now be considerably lower, but the issue has never gone away. People are still travelling in significant numbers through the Western Balkans to try to find a better life in an EU country. But the last of the cross-border buses and trains laid on to smooth their passage departed several years ago. And the Covid-19 pandemic has made their already difficult journeys still more complicated.

Social distancing and self-isolation present considerable challenges for people who may not have anywhere to call home. And with regular border crossings impossible, there is even less tolerance towards those who make their way across fields, mountains and rivers. Slovenia’s government has already warned of the dangers posed by an increase in the numbers coming up the Balkan Route, sending a thousand extra police to patrol the border with Croatia.

The headlines which trickle through the flood of coronavirus coverage make for uncomfortable reading. “Serbian soldiers guard migrant camp near Croatia border,” says Reuters. “Migrants Trapped in Balkan Camps Find Ramadan a Trial,” notes Balkan Insight. And, most alarmingly, The Guardian reports “Croatian police accused of spray-painting heads of asylum seekers.”

The struggle facing people stuck on today’s so-called Balkan Route is the legacy of a shift in sentiment which saw the worthy “refugee” mutate into the undesirable “migrant”. This took place somewhere between the appearance of “refugees welcome” banners at German football matches and the unveiling of a notorious poster by the British provocateur, Nigel Farage, in June 2016.

“BREAKING POINT,” the billboard blared in bright red capitals. “The EU has failed us all,” it continued in a smaller, more restrained type. The image to the right of the lettering rammed home the message, depicting a broad and seemingly endless line of people of colour. The clear implication was that they were queuing up to enter the UK.

Of course, they were not. I should know – I was there, with a couple of colleagues, on the Slovenian side of the border with Croatia. Slovenian mounted police were escorting thousands of people from a muster point in a field along a dyke towards a temporary reception centre. We walked with the crowd for several kilometres, talking with people as they ambled along on a pleasantly sunny October afternoon.

Some struggled on the uneven terrain with wheeled suitcases and laden baby buggies – but the prevailing mood was optimistic. Many people had escaped conflict in Iraq and Syria; the names Mosul and Aleppo kept cropping up in our conversations. If nothing else, they now felt they were safe.

In between shooting a piece to camera for the BBC’s News at Six and connecting for a live interview with Radio 5 Live, I stepped off to the side of the track to take a couple of phone photographs of the extraordinary scene. The technical quality might not be the greatest, but you can see the long line of people snaking off around a distant corner, into the shade of the trees at the edge of the dyke.

Months later, it was sickening to see how Nigel Farage had repurposed an image taken the same week, in a similar spot, to drive home a xenophobic message. The Brexit party founder has repeatedly claimed that this deliberately misleading poster had “won us the referendum” on Britain’s membership of the EU.

Since then, attitudes towards people coming up the Balkan Route have only hardened. And I cannot help but think that the way they are described has contributed to this. Ostensibly, “migrant” is a neutral word – but, in reality, it sends a signal to the audience about the person given that label. There is an implication that theirs is a journey of choice, not necessity – and the treatment they receive should reflect that.

This is not an original thought. Even before the refugee crisis, an article in The Guardian asked the reasonable question, “why are white people expats when the rest of us are immigrants?” Peripatetic journalists are not described as “migrant reporters”, while the people in charge of international delegations are called “Resident Coordinator” or, if you please, “Head of Country”, within their organisations. If “migrant” did not carry a pejorative undertone, then presumably more people would be happy to use it in their job titles.

And the human cost is real. As I write, almost ten thousand people are stuck in Serbia and Bosnia respectively, having been thwarted in their efforts to reach the EU. The official reception centres are generally full to capacity, and hardly luxurious – some are derelict factories, repurposed to offer basic accommodation. But they are still a better option than sleeping rough in abandoned buildings, or in exposed, makeshift camps close to borders.

Many of those who make it to Croatia or even Slovenia are “pushed back”, as the euphemism goes. This can be an ugly process. Aid workers have reported countless allegations of violence, theft and humiliation by Croatian border police. In Slovenia, right-wing vigilantes patrol frontier regions. Ultra-right activists have also staged demonstrations outside one reception centre in Serbia, while another facility came under attack by a man who drove his car through the perimeter fence and livestreamed himself shouting racist epithets at the residents.

Back in 2015, many news organisations resisted using the word “migrant”. Al Jazeera called it “a tool that dehumanises and distances, a blunt pejorative”; For similar reasons, Lindsey Hilsum of Channel 4 News declared she was “going to stop using it except when there’s really no alternative”.

The numbers on the Balkan Route may be much lower in 2020, but the same points still hold. Calling someone a “migrant” remains tantamount to questioning their motivation and absolving the authorities of responsibility for their welfare. Even the International Organization for Migration concedes that “at the international level, no universally accepted definition for ‘migrant’ exists”.

So perhaps it is a word best avoided, especially as a truly neutral alternative already exists. It is not just accurate, but far more likely to engender empathy – and there is certainly a universally accepted definition.

The word in question? People.

Author photo

Guy De Launey has been the Balkans Correspondent for BBC News since 2012 and covered the European refugee crisis in Serbia, Croatia, Slovenia, Bosnia and North Macedonia. He previously reported for the BBC in Southeast Asia, covering the Khmer Rouge Tribunal during 8 years based in Phnom Penh. Guy is also a correspondent for Monocle magazine and presents The Globalist and The Briefing on Monocle 24.

Main image: Copyright Guy De Launey.

Photo shows people making the walk from the Slovenian border village of Rigonce to a reception centre in the town of Brezice, around 8km away.