Aliens? Migrants? Exiles? Refugees? Asylum seekers? People? Dreamers?

Immigration is perhaps the main debate area where terminology gets very confused. The Express and Mail get people very wound up about “immigrants”. But what are people exactly getting wound up about? Illegal immigrants? Asylum seekers? Legal immigrants? Or people who were born in the UK, and who perhaps have several generations of antecedents who were born here, but just look different to themselves? We have to be very precise about terms or we get into a very emotionally-charged muddle.

In an LDV article entitled “Don’t talk to me about migrants” Caron noted on here last month that words matter in the reporting and discussion of the refugee crisis. I’ve read some correspondence between a complainant and the BBC from last month (and I’m sorry I can’t find it at the moment) where the BBC were adamantly sticking to the word “migrant” to describe the current movement of people across borders.

So, I couldn’t believe it when on Wednesday night on the ten o’clock news on BBC1, a BBC reporter actually referred to “refugees”. (I know it’s not the BBC, but Ben Shephard on ITV also referred on Thursday morning to the “refugee crisis”.) And a quick search of the BBC website for the last few weeks shows that they have been frequently using the word “refugees”. But they still use the word “migrants” in many blanket headlines.

Thus, as you would expect, the BBC are taking a very scholarly and nuanced approach. This BBC News magazine article by Camilla Ruz carefully outlines the controversy concerning use of descriptions for people moving across borders:

Images of people scrambling over barbed wire fences in Calais or crossing the Mediterranean in fishing boats have dominated the media over the last few months. And a debate has even emerged about the very words used to describe people.

The word migrant is defined in Oxford English Dictionary as “one who moves, either temporarily or permanently, from one place, area, or country of residence to another”.

It is used as a neutral term by many media organisations – including the BBC – but there has been criticism of that use.

News website al-Jazeera has decided it will not use migrant and “will instead, where appropriate, say refugee”. An online editor for the network wrote: “It has evolved from its dictionary definitions into a tool that dehumanises and distances, a blunt pejorative.” A Washington Post piece asked if it was time to ditch the word.

There are some who dislike the term because it implies something voluntary but that it is applied to people fleeing danger. A UN document suggests: “The term ‘migrant’… should be understood as covering 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.”

I’ll leave you to read the full article which covers the whole gambit of word use in this context.

But it does seem that the BBC are now using the term “refugees” and “asylum seekers” very widely when they are sure it is appropriate in particular circumstances – and using the general term “migrant” (which they regard as “neutral”) in general circumstances. Their approach seems sensible to me. And I note that generally, particularly since the published photograph of Aylan Kurdi, the word “refugees” has been in common use and reporting of their plight has become much more sympathetic.

This argument about words can seem very clinical and detached, but in the end we are searching for language which accurately and adequately reflects dire, heart-rending situations which are hurting humble, poor, hungry, innocent people.

I end with the excellent words of Channel Four News’ Lindsey Hilsum:

Migrant shouldn’t be a term of abuse, but increasingly it’s seen that way so I personally am going to stop using it except when there’s really no alternative. Refugee I will use as I always do to describe someone fleeing conflict, however many countries they’ve passed through. And when I’m not sure, because I don’t know the whole story, I think I might just call them people. Because that’s what they are, whatever the motive for their journey.

* Paul Walter is a Liberal Democrat activist. He is currently taking a break from his role as one of the Liberal Democrat Voice team. He blogs at Liberal Burblings.

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18 Comments

  • Nick Bezuidenhout 18th Sep '15 - 9:53am

    “Refugee I will use as I always do to describe someone fleeing conflict, however many countries they’ve passed through.”

    I cannot agree with this. When people flee for their lives to a country where they are safe and can attain refugee status, then of course we should call them refugees.

    However, when they then choose to shun the refugee process in that country and move to a third country, they become migrants, because now it ‘s not about safety anymore. And if they move to the third country by bypassing its border controls, then they become illegal immigrants and should be treated as such.

  • I agree with Jayne, the meaning of words can and does change over time through usage. The choice between using migrant or refugee or any other label to describe these people has become a way to define how one looks at this issue as a whole.

    I’m less concerned about differences in terminology though, I’m more worried that Europe will not find a solution to this humanitarian crisis before winter sets in and people start freezing to death in the fields of central Europe. These people are here now, and as admirable as it is, taking 20,000 people from camps around Syria is not going to help those who are already on our doorstep.

  • Richard Underhill 18th Sep '15 - 11:34am

    Accurate language is very desirable, but the BBC’s problem is that many of these people have not been processed, and some resist even minimal processing.
    Because the responsibility falls on the nation-state before it falls on the international community the UNHCR also uses the term “Internally Displced Persons (IDPs)” but even this can cause difficulties where the frontiers cease or ceased to exist, as in the former Yugoslavia, as at the Iraq-Syria border now.
    The second point is the phrase “recognised refugee/s”. They may have been recognised as refugee/s after processing by a safe country such as France (not Turkey) or by UNHCR, which is not a country and therefore has no jurisdiction.
    The third point is simply that people are not asylum seekers until they seek asylum. People from the Republic of Albania (see also Rick Stein’s cookery trip on BBC tv, low income but not at war, see FCO website for safety of tourists) from Kosovo and other European countries not member-states of the EU are adding onto the flow of people walking northwards. If these people claim asylum they are likely to be refused, even in a safe country.

  • I agree with Nick B. The people besieging Hungary and Croatia may well have been refugees of war when they reached Turkey or Lebanon from Syria, but by fact of their continued movement are now refugee-tourists, whose aim is not simply to escape war but to do so by settling in the country they deem to be most likely to grant them a European passport and full access to all the benefits and rights of European citizenship without having to earn them. And who can blame them after Merkel’s incredible and inexplicable opening (and then equally rapid shutting) of the door? The cries of “but we didn’t think there would be so many” from first Germany and now Croatia are frankly depressing and incredible. Are they being advised by the same people who predicted how many Poles etc. would come to Britain? Now the door is perceived to be open, there will literally be no end to the flow. Small countries like Hungary (Ottoman until 1700) see this invasion/migration as a threat to their nationhood and one can understand why.

    We should be pumping money into camps in Turkey and Lebanon and indeed into asylum assessment centres there, to destroy the people-traffickers’ evil business and. do nothing to encourage movement across Europe. I am afraid to say that Cameron’s decision to take only people from the established camps is exactly the right one, practically and morally.

  • Richard Underhill 18th Sep '15 - 11:58am

    David 18th Sep ’15 – 11:37am After World War 2 people in most of the world were displaced by warfare, so it would not have been possible to negotiate an international convention in 1951. To be recognised as refugees they need to show individual persecution for a Convention reason.
    For instance one man interviewed on BBC tv today had been called up for conscription in the army of Assad, had failed to attend, left Syria and flown to Brazil, which welcomed him, but did not provide any material support. If he had applied for asylum in the UK he would have been refused under the Adan judgement (derived from Somali cases). If it was not possible to send him to a safe place, he might have been granted another form of temporary protection, such as nunder the Human Rights Act, or under the discretion of the Minister, delegated to civil servants.

  • Oh dear. Words have a meaning, if you spend your time trying to re-define that meaning you either don’t have a case to make or are just rubbish at making it.

    Migrants is an accurate term, it is an umbrella term that covers refugees, highly skilled economic migrants (who may see limited economic benefit but may just be interested in working in a new location), low skilled economic migrants (who do see an economic benefit).

    Refugees are people displaced due to fleeing persecution (despite where they currently are).

    There are many things that need to be discussed.
    Some are high level principles such who should be allowed to claim asylum where, what happens when the place of origin stabilises, what should be expected of those granted asylum, what our response to economic migrants should be, etc.
    Some are practical “plumbing” questions who should accommodate, how many, how to process, etc.

    None of these discussions are helped by people trying to debase the language, if you are trying to redefine words that already have a meaning, perhaps you should stop and think if you are actually hearting the cause you are trying to support and perhaps you should go away and come up with better arguments than “I don’t call X that I use the term Y.”

  • Richard Underhill 18th Sep '15 - 2:34pm

    Psi 18th Sep ’15 – 1:17pm “Refugees are people displaced due to fleeing persecution (despite where they currently are).”
    Not in the language of the 1951 United Nations Convention. Please will folks just read it. They need to cross an international frontier for a convention reason. “Economic migrant” is irrelevant, rich or poor, it is what is left over if they do not have a convention reason, which could include spending money to join family under the Human Rights Act.
    What David Cameron said is simply wrong, more political than legal.

  • Nothing very persuasive I could see in the article you referred to. She has the causation the wrong way round.

    Using a UN definition not the dictionary definition, burying that counter argument in to the link rather than expressing it and addressing. Not a persuasive tactic, but not an uncommon one.

    The argument a few years back was that people seeking asylum should not be referred to as “asylum seekers” as it had negative connotations. I disagree as these terms are neutral terms if looked at logically, however when attached to a situation when people have an emotional response (in this case fear) they have a negative reaction to the event and associate it with that particular use of the term. So we could refer to these people as “fluffy bunny people” and over time the negative connotation would build.

    The solution is to explain the situation calmly, explain the sensible solution (all aspects of it, including the need to provide refuge for these people but not just that). Policing language shuts down debate closes minds and does not persuade.

    The “rebranding” approach is popular in academic circles. Racism isn’t racism it is something new that fits X school of thought. Sexism isn’t sexism; it has a new definition that fits Y view. It looks (and is) ridiculous. It comes across as attacking people for using perfectly accurate language, it closes down informative discussion. If you meet someone who starts trying to redefine language, most of the time the conversation will close down, and when that person leaves (or doesn’t come to a regular event) the discussion opens up. Normally those who look to plice language eventually break in to accusation of some kind malevolence from those who don’t agree.

    There is a lot of fear and a lot of misunderstanding but if your response is to try and argue over the language (with the very few exceptions when the language is wildly out of line) you give yourself no credibility on the issue. People need to discuss the issue not be attacked for saying one thing one way or another while wondering(/worrying) if they will be attacked for not using the latest prescribed term.

    The language is not the issue, the underlying perception is and that is driven not by language.

  • David Pollard 18th Sep '15 - 5:11pm

    It was so obvious that this was going to happen. Regrettably, I agree with Cameron on his policy, except the total number of Syrians we should let in. It should at least be the number recommended by the Commission.

  • Just to clarify that last point was in responce to Jayne Mansfield

  • “It was so obvious that this was going to happen. ” as was the reaction of the liberal chattering classes: see “Cry Wolf: A Political Fable”…

    ” I agree with Cameron on his policy, except the total number of Syrians we should let in.”
    Interesting that we are now starting to get reliable breakdowns of the origins of migrants entering and attempting to cross Europe and are finding that Syria’s, whilst the largest single migrant group, only form a small minority of those currently clamouring to enter the EU.

  • Jayne Mansfield

    “I actually believe that the language we use to describe people does shape our perception and our response to them.”

    Well it certainly does shape the listeners perception of someone trying to tries to pursuafe them by trying to police their language.

  • Jayne

    “I think that you have a very unsophisticated view of the power of language. I actually believe that the language we use to describe people does shape our perception and our response to them.”

    I would suggest that you and Jennifer Saul have a too rigid a view of how language affects our perception. If you look back of the terms that have been branded ‘unacceptable’ due to an ‘evolved perception’ of how they have been used:
    Foreigner (long ago now);
    Asylum Seeker;
    Immigrant; and now
    Migrant.
    If we also consider the terms that haven’t been used but also wouldn’t be seen as acceptable (for good reason): alien, colonist; outsider; invader, etc.
    Each of the terms that have been used and now look to be policed out are accurate descriptions though some less useful. There have been uses of language in the past to describe people that have been rightly made unacceptable, as they had purely a negative meaning (generally racist terms) and most people accept that it is unacceptable.

    The point is that what was a sensible position to take originally (addressing racism) by moving from an emotionally loaded negative term to more accurate descriptive terms makes sense, almost everyone can get behind it.

    The new language police complain that those with a negative view of immigration (including refugees) have captured the umbrella terms (asylum seeker, immigrant, migrant) and loaded them with native emotion (fear). What the new language police are interested in is stopping accurate terms and replacing them with less accurate terms. So referring to a group of people who are migrants (consisting refugees and economic migrants and a tiny minority of others) and using a description of a section of that group to describe all of them, in this case ‘refugees.’ The aim of this is not to accurately describe what is going on and to identify what can be done but to create a positive emotional (empathy) association. So rather than appeal to people’s intelligence and illustrate why the positive (empathy) should win out by addressing the native (fear), you sink to the same dishonest tactic.

  • jayne contd…

    This tactic is transparent and insulting to most people. It is also deployed by people who are actually too lazy to take the time to understand people and set out a case to change their mind. Often the same people who deploy this tactic when doing a poor case of persuading resort to name calling of those they are trying to persuade.

    I would suggest if you want to see the technique in action watch Anjem Choudary try and debate Maajid Nawaz, the technique is to go for claiming he isn’t a ‘proper’ muslim. And the whole argument falls apart when Maajid just takes a ‘lets assume you are right for the moment and gets back to the point under discussion’ this causes Choudray to fall apart. The same approach is now being used by the libertarian think tanks, ‘lets accept the term “sweat shop” fir the moment’ ‘lets accept the term “slums” for the moment” and suddenly those arguing against look illogical and driven purely by some kind of emotional reaction as they are not prepared to address the issue.

    Tim Farron’s biggest failing on this has been to look very emotional on the issue but have no one acting a counter point with the cold hard reasoned argument as to why we need to be taking refugees. There is a case to make but who is doing that?

    Your position is that ‘rebranding’ is a sensible position. In reality all you have done is surrendered the accurate language to those who are pushing a negative case and are using emotional claims that will always have a factual case that counts against you (some paper can find someone who is not a refugee) and having spent you r time attacking the use of accurate language and made arguments based upon emotional interpretations that can be shown to be factually inaccurate, where do you go from there? The doubt will be there in terms of your understanding (or honesty) and there will be a level of mistrust about your likely behaviour towards others (even if just through association) and remember your purpose is to persuade these people.

    So I return to the original point, policing language is the realm of those who either don’t have a case or are unable to make that case, we should all be about persuading those who would be open to persuasion, not alienating them.

    If your argument involves re-writing the dictionary, you have already lost.

  • jedibeeftrix 21st Sep '15 - 3:41pm

    Excellent discussion between psi and jayne.

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