Debates over language: a dangerous distraction?

Responding to any urgent humanitarian situation, including the current inflow of migrants and refugees to Europe, involves correctly categorising and defining the problem. But agonising over labels and language risks overshadowing the need for more coordinated responses and a better understanding of what is driving people to embark on these journeys.

First on language. There has been considerable debate in the past few days over how to refer to those arriving at Europe’s borders with some media outlets refusing to use the word ‘migrant’, others arguing that this hardens a “good refugee vs bad migrant” dichotomy, and others noting the inadequacies of present terminology. UNHCR has weighed in on the debate declaring its preference for the term “migrants and refugees” and reaffirming that “choices about words do matter”. This is an issue I’ve also written about elsewhere , and while it is extremely important in matters of law and policy, it’s an easy issue to get angry about while achieving very little.

At the heart of the matter are people risking their lives in search of safety from persecution or a better life, or both. Moments such as those captured by the photos of Laith Majid arriving in Greece and of Abdul selling pens with his daughter on the streets of Lebanon bring home the plight of people on the move. The public’s response to crowd-funding campaigns for refugees like Abdul demonstrate the immense capacity for generosity and solidarity. But there are thousands more such stories we don’t hear about, either because they are not captured on camera or because many never reach Europe.

Responses must go beyond a few individuals and be directed evenly across migration routes. Labelling Mediterranean countries such as Greece and Italy as “frontline states” does not accurately describe where the largest groups of refugees are being hosted. The real frontline for Syrians starts inside their country, where IDMC estimates some 7.6 million people are internally displaced. The next frontline is in neighbouring countries such as Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan, which are collectively hosting over four million refugees. As governments in Europe discuss proposals to assist EU member states such as Greece and Italy, they should look further afield and consider providing more support to countries like Jordan where the World Food Programme has had to cut funding for its food voucher program for Syrian refugees.

So what is preventing us from developing more practical wide-reaching responses? An inherent challenge, when the dynamics of migrant and refugee outflows change so quickly, is that the logic of approaches that would keep refugees in their place is turned on its head. As is well understood, people do not choose to become refugees, but when they do take flight it is their exercise of mobility that often keeps them alive. UN Special Rapporteur on the Human Rights of Migrants François Crépeau has argued that creating innovative, regulated mobility options for refugees and migrants must be central to policy responses.

We are learning more and more every day about those who make it to Europe. We know the majority are Syrians and they are increasingly using the Western Balkans land route from Turkey. We know less about the majority who do not move, cannot move or might not even wish to move (except perhaps back to Syria if the situation permits). Mapping drivers of mobility and immobility at individual, family and community level would provide a dynamic picture of regional mobility and move beyond broad generalisations about all “Syrian refugees” (itself a very diverse group).

Finally, the popular outrage directed at people smugglers should not be translated into policies focused only on smuggling and trafficking as if this offered the panacea to irregular migration. Instead of focusing only on harsher penalties for smugglers, more attention needs to be paid to the micro-economies of smuggling, especially in transit countries such as Libya, where the trade provides livelihoods to local people.

It is heartening to know that many people all over the world care about language and about desperate individual refugees. Let’s now take the next step towards developing responses based on an understanding of the drivers of movement and the forces that fuel irregular migration. It will take more than one agency, go beyond any one organisation’s mandate and involve cross-border approaches. The rising death toll due to irregular migration and the increasingly globalised dimensions of mobility can only be addressed through a more holistic response.