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Refugee Crisis: how language contributes to the fate of refugees

Europe is currently facing a crisis of conscience as refugees fleeing conflict in the Middle East and Africa seek asylum. Michael Diedring and John Dorber of the European Council on Refugees and Exiles explain how calculated use of language on the crisis can create a hostile environment for refugees when used by media and politicians.

Language is being extensively used, many times with specific intent, to stigmatise those crossing borders

Refugee child crying on beach
Syrian refugees arrive on Lesbos, Greece. UNHCR | Andrew McConnell

Language matters to people on the move

Dramatic scenes have gripped the world as children, women and men have trudged for days across Europe seeking refuge. Disturbing images have been broadcast of lifeless bodies washed ashore on Europe’s beaches when dangerous journeys across the Mediterranean or Aegean Seas have proved fatal, to the point where Europe’s leading politicians have been personally pulled into the public debate. Always attuned to high political drama or riveting personal tragedy, the press has provided running commentary, oftentimes in especially dramatic fashion.

As this humanitarian crisis continues to unfold before our eyes – and the eyes of the world – we need to be sensitive to language that may pollute rational discourse over what is undeniably an extremely complex issue. A level-headed forum for sensible debate in Europe is needed to address the multi-faceted challenges that ongoing conflicts around the world are presenting, so that we in Europe can offer protection to those in need.

"It remains the case that language is being extensively used, many times with specific intent, to stigmatise those crossing borders."

The importance of language when discussing the current situation cannot be overstated. There is a long history of the use of pernicious, pejorative language to dehumanise people arriving in Europe, and while there are signs that more positive, humane and accurate terminology is being used to describe the current situation, it remains the case that language is being extensively used, many times with specific intent, to stigmatise those crossing borders.

A crisis… of what?

The current movement of people undertaking dangerous, life-threatening journeys in hope of finding safety or a better life in Europe has been described interchangeably as a ‘migration crisis’ or a ‘refugee crisis’. There is no intrinsic tension between these terms: a ‘refugee’ is a person forced to leave their country because their lives are in danger, whereas ‘migration’ encompasses all kinds of movement by people. Thus, ‘migration’ may be used to describe a heterogeneous group of individuals including those moving for economic reasons (often referred to as 'economic migrants'), refugees, those seeking asylum, and persons displaced who are in need of assistance and/or international protection. Complexity necessarily enters the debate as the above terms are not binary concepts – they exist on a fluid spectrum.

"With the UNHCR reporting that 94 per cent of the over 500,000 people who have arrived in Europe by sea in Greece so far this year come from the world’s top 10 refugee-producing countries, it is more accurate to term the current situation a ‘refugee crisis’."

With the UNHCR reporting that 94 per cent of the over 500,000 people who have arrived in Europe by sea in Greece so far this year come from the world’s top 10 refugee-producing countries, it is more accurate to term the current situation a ‘refugee crisis’. This is to say that the majority of people arriving are fleeing persecution or armed conflict. Their predicament defines their status, and arises simply and automatically from their situation, rather than by any formal recognition by a state or agency. Recognition therefore does not make someone a refugee, but rather declares them to be one.

The 1951 Refugee Convention establishes a regime of rights and responsibilities states have towards refugees, with key legal obligations that people should not be expelled or returned to situations where their life and freedom would be under threat (also known as non-refoulement), and measures to allow them to live in safety and in dignity.

The term ‘asylum seeker’ is used in this context to describe persons who have left their country of origin seeking safety, who have now applied for asylum in another country, and are awaiting a decision on their application. There is an obligation upon states to provide basic reception conditions and access to fair and efficient asylum procedures when presented with an asylum request.

Refugees have a distinct legal status as they have been forced to leave their country because their lives are in danger, and thus there is a recognised legal and moral duty to provide international protection. This is perhaps why the distinction between refugees and other people on the move is often blurred by politicians.

‘Migrant’ can apply as much to a couple retiring to Spain, as to a seasonal worker in Switzerland during a ski season, as to an African individual looking for work in Europe. Thus, the prevalence of the term ‘migrant’ in describing the current situation may now seem less benign because its use in the current context 'removes' the unique legal status given to refugees.

Nonetheless, it is important to note that while a person moving for solely economic reasons may not currently have a recognised right to enter Europe to seek a job, these individuals possess human rights and must be treated with dignity and not subjected to prolonged detention or ill-treatment for arriving on a territory without pre-authorisation.

The language of security

European leaders continue to utilise the language of security, demanding greater control measures over the movement of people and the strengthening of borders – both physically and legally. This further narrowing of the safe and legal avenues available to people fleeing war and persecution, has led to more people having to resort to irregular entry and the use of smugglers and/or criminal networks. Language that accompanies this security debate refers to ‘illegal’ entry and ‘threats’ to European society, and a 'war' on smugglers. This toxifies the discussion and gives politicians the remit to impose sanctions and justify the ill-treatment of people arriving without prior authorisation, to build fences, close borders, detain asylum seekers, and impose other legal barriers to asylum. It also justifies criminalising the act of irregular entry, giving an immediate negative connotation to the entry onto, and onward movement across, European soil.

This is particularly dangerous and inappropriate as the 1951 Refugee Convention stipulates that states shall not impose penalties on account of the entry or presence of people seeking refuge on their territory, and implies that refugees, given their flight, might by definition need to cross borders without recognised identity papers or prior authority.

Crowds of refugees trapped at the Serbia-Croatia border (Credit: Mark Henley | UNHCR)
Crowds of refugees trapped at the Serbia-Croatia border. UNHCR | Mark Henley

The language of 'inevitability'

"The use of humane, appropriate and accurate language is critically important when describing people on the move and their predicament, especially refugees who have unique legal protection, but also other migrants who travel nonetheless with human rights."

Finally, the language used to describe the mass influx of people often describes the properties of water, a further dehumanisation of those people on the move. Described as the 'flow', 'flood' or a 'tsunami' of people, such terms raise the spectre that movement cannot be stopped and will cause damage over a large area. When the public comes to regard the influx of people fleeing for their lives in this manner, only negative connotations can ensue.

The use of humane, appropriate and accurate language is critically important when describing people on the move and their predicament, especially refugees who have unique legal protection, but also other migrants who travel nonetheless with human rights. Accurate and well reported media coverage will contribute to a balanced debate and will assist in fostering real respect and calmness in the face of deep human suffering. Refugees – all people actually – deserve to be treated with dignity and respect; in our public discourse as well as through our actions.

Michael Diedring is Secretary-General and John Dorber is Legal Assistant at the European Council on Refugees and Exiles.

Views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The Elders or The Elders Foundation.

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The Elders are independent global leaders, brought together by Nelson Mandela, who offer their collective influence and experience to support peace building, help address major causes of human suffering and promote the shared interests of humanity.

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