Migrants, refugees and the importance of language


It’s been nearly two weeks since a crowd of hundreds rushed a border fence in Macedonia, only to be met by truncheons and stun grenades. Six days later, two boats sunk in the Mediterranean, while 71 bodies were found inside an abandoned truck in Austria. Now hundreds are stuck outside Budapest’s train station, demanding their tickets to Germany be honored, as the Hungarian government insists it is applying EU law by keeping them there.

The media is calling this “Europe’s Migrant Crisis.” Trouble is, these people are not migrants.

The UN Convention on the Rights of Migrants defines “migrant worker” as “person who is to be engaged, is engaged or has been engaged in a remunerated activity in a State of which he or she is not a national.” The definition has been broadened to “[covers] all cases where the decision to migrate is taken freely by the individual concerned, for reasons of ‘personal convenience’ and without intervention of an external compelling factor.”

Words matter. By grouping these people, the vast majority of them from Syria, together under the “migrant” umbrella, it’s implied that they are simply moving to Europe to find better economic circumstances.

In Syria, more than 200,000 people have died since the beginning of the armed conflict in March 2011. Civilians are not safe — in fact they are targeted, particularly by rebel groups intent on using terror as a weapon. At the same time, the government is using bombs and chemical weapons against its own people.

Almost 4 million have left Syria since the conflict began. These are not people determined to seek better economic circumstances; these are people determined merely to go on living. These are not migrants. These are refugees. These are asylum-seekers.

As a writer, I understand the importance of using vocabulary agreed upon by the majority, in order to best get the point across. But as a writer, I also realize that vocabulary can shape perception. To label a person a “migrant” implies that person seeks money, that person made a choice in hopes of bettering their life. Considering the economic conditions in the countries where these people are landing — Greece, Italy, even Hungary — it’s no wonder some hackles are raised when citizens hear the word “migrant”.

“Refugee” has an entirely different connotation. According to the definition set out in the Geneva Convention, a refugee is an person who has “a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion” in his or her native country. “Persecution” is an emotional word for many. It often conjures up the need to protect, to keep those people from further harm. The rights of refugees are seen as a moral issue, the rights of migrants an economic one.

Syrians are recognized as war refugees, and in the EU, a passport or other form of identification allows them to qualify for political asylum. Problem is, under the Dublin System, refugees granted political asylum are not afforded the right to travel freely around Europe.

Which is how we reach the point of razor fences and tear gas, of rail station lockouts and denial of movement. When a refugee leaves Greece, hoping to make their way to the greater opportunities in northern Europe, that refugee is then labeled a migrant, seeking economic benefit rather than fleeing persecution. That’s when the Hungarian foreign minister can say his country will register the migrants, and send back all those it considers “economic migrants.”

Hungary’s fence, Macedonia’s barbed wire — these are constructions of countries viewing those fleeing Syria as migrants. That view allows excuses, permits officials the right to deny asylum. Dropping the use of the word “migrant” — even in those cases in which refugees attempt to move from one Dublin System country to another — will not, in and of itself, solve the problem. But correctly applying the word “refugee” may help Europeans see granting asylum as a moral duty rather than a problem to be foisted off on someone else.