24 Oct 2016, 53 mins ago

The headlines have been dominated in recent months by one particular topic, the thousands of families and individuals setting out on a perilous journey to reach European shores. This is indeed a global issue, worthy of the title “crisis”. The big question now, however, is are the politicians and news outlets correct in referencing this as a “Migrant” crisis; or is the term “Refugee” crisis far more appropriate?

This has evolved into a fast growing debate about the general terminology being used regarding the subject, with many arguing that there is a big difference between the two phrases, and the either is a key factor in shaping the general public’s opinion on the matter.

Currently, the terms “migrant” and “refugee”, and even the term “asylum seeker” are being used without any distinction between one another and are increasingly becoming recognised by the public as having the same meanings. This is, of course, quite a crucial mistake to make as each title commands specific differing obligations to be met by the international community.

A “migrant” is generally described as a person who moves, either temporarily or permanently, from one place or country of residence to another. Such a person may have moved for work purposes, or to seek a better life for themselves and their family. The one vital piece of information to remember is that, in this case, the person or group has made the choice to move, for economic purposes.

If they are entering from outside of the EU, their transition to a European country is subject to strict immigration controls and successfully obtaining the relevant visas. Migrants can also be deported at any point if they do not observe and abide by immigration laws.

A refugee has been clearly defined in Article 1 of the 1951 UN Convention relating to the status of refugees as someone who “…owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality, and is unable to, or owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country.”

A person who is deemed to fit this definition is forced to leave their country of residence and as such is protected under international law and must be treated differently than an individual choosing to move for economic purposes.

It is clear, therefore, that the choice of words describing the current crisis in the Mediterranean is of great importance and can significantly impact on the way these individuals are received in Europe.

Approximately 137,000 people travelled across the Mediterranean earlier this year, all of whom were fleeing persecution in war-torn countries such as Syria, Afghanistan and Eritrea. The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees spokesman, William Spindler, stated that it was “…simply inaccurate to talk about Syrian migrants when there’s a war going on in Syria

This perspective has drawn a number of criticisms. A report in the Independent argues that, “As incorrect as it is to presume all boat arrivals are economic migrants, they should also not be presumed to be refugees…” and referred to Bill Frelick of Human Rights Watch, stating that poverty alone isn’t enough to qualify as a refugee.

Speaking to the BBC, a columnist for the Daily Telegraph, Tim Stanley, identified the moment at which one can officially describe people as either refugees or economic migrants is “… The moment at which the EU state that is processing their claim makes its decision.” He went on to say that it is the responsibility of the state in which they have arrived to define what they are.

Others have supported this position, referring to the word “migrant” as an appropriate term for one who has move from one place to another, and whilst a person is in the process of applying for asylum.

The legal terminology suggests that an individual only becomes an “asylum-seeker” once they have officially applied, and can only be referred to as a “refugee” once their claim has been processed and they have been awarded refugee status by the state.

However, reporters are not restricted by the legal definition of a refugee as stated in the convention. The Oxford English Dictionary describes as refugee as:

“A person who has been forced to leave his or her home and seek refuge elsewhere, esp. in a foreign country, from war, religious persecution, political troubles, the effects of a natural disaster, etc.; a displaced person. Also fig. and in extended use.”

As it is a much broader description, people can still meet the dictionary definition of “refugee” irrespective of what their legal status is so there is no reason to wait for status determination before referring to them as such. If journalists are going to restrict themselves to the legal definition, then they should be referring to people as asylum seekers whilst they are waiting for status determination.

According to reports from The Independent, Al Jazeera English has announced that it will no longer use the word “migrant” in its articles regarding the crisis, replacing it with “refugee”, where appropriate.

The online editor for Al Jazeera, Barry Malone, explained that, “The umbrella term migrant is no longer fit for purpose when it comes to describing the horror unfolding in the Mediterranean… it has evolved from its dictionary definitions [“A person who moves permanently to live in a new country, town, etc., esp. to look for work, or to take up a post, etc.; an immigrant”] into a tool that dehumanises and distances.”

The Independent went on to say that reoccurring references to “swarms of migrants”, is dangerous, and cited the Director of the Oxford University Refugee Studies Centre in WorldViews, stating that such words convey an exaggerated sense of threat, and are responsible for fueling “anti-immigration sentiment and a climate of intolerance and xenophobia”.

“When they are reduced to statistics, and described in pejorative terms such as ‘floods,’ ‘waves,’ ‘unstoppable tides’ they are all too easy to cast aside and ignore… To undermine the system that identifies a refugee, and prevents him or her from being sent home… should be unthinkable – and it is unthinkable, when one looks at asylum seekers and refugees as individual human beings.”

There are a great number of supporters for each side of this debate, however it could be argued that both parties are being vastly over-simplistic in stating that legally those arriving in Europe will either be a migrant or refugee – even if refused asylum, they may still be granted humanitarian protection.