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Why the label 'migrant' should bother you

Syrians swim to safety after travelling on the Mediterranean sea [Tamer Yazar/Twitter]
Migrants swim to safety after crossing the Mediterranean, 14 December 2017 [Tamer Yazar/Twitter]

Summer 2015 saw the fixation of international media outlets upon "Europe's Migrant Crisis". It was the largest wave of mass-migration that Europe has faced since the end of the Second World War. Al-Jazeera instigated a debate about the media coverage of people crossing the Mediterranean to seek a life in Europe; many prominent media outlets followed suit. This led to a general consensus that the media has a humanitarian responsibility to define the correct terminology used in the rhetoric.

Al-Jazeera announced its decision to use the term "refugees" instead of "migrants"; it explained that, "The umbrella term migrant is no longer fit for purpose when it comes to describing the horror unfolding in the Mediterranean." The Guardian also stated that "refugees", "displaced people" and "asylum seekers" are more accurate terms than a "catch-all label like migrants", emphasising the importance of using these terms more often as reporting "should be humane as well as accurate."

The reflection of this debate in politics, however, was quite the opposite. The initial and overwhelming reaction of politicians was one of an old-school populist "queue jumpers" discourse which claimed that the main motivation of the people crossing the Mediterranean was to have better job opportunities and a higher standard of living. Infamously, the then British Prime Minister David Cameron used the term "illegal migrants" and claimed that the refugees "are not fleeing from persecution but seeking a better life."

Read: Mediterranean 'by far world's deadliest border' for migrants

It took the body of young Alan Kurdi to be washed up on a Turkish beach before governments started to adopt a more humane approach towards the crisis, and use the word "refugee" more often. Consequently, European governments accelerated their asylum procedures and increased their refugee quota for Syrians fleeing the war in their country. Syrian asylum seekers granted refugee status were mostly registered and investigated in Greece, Turkey and Lebanon.

The situation for asylum seekers from other places, however, was quite contradictory. Refugees coming from West Africa for instance continued to be considered as "illegal migrants" attempting to enter Europe without legal documents. The alleged reason behind the determined "illegal migrants" discourse of most European states was to "break the link between setting off in a boat and achieving settlement in Europe." Countries across the continent make it clear to refugees that coming to Europe directly will not grant them the asylum they are seeking, as per their "one-in, one-out" agreement with Turkey. As such, the EU attempts to deter people from entering due to the agreement which sees Europe taking a Syrian refugee registered and living in Turkey in return for a Syrian in Europe. The main purpose of the agreement was said to be to discourage the "illegal migration" and prevent people smuggling and human trafficking.

These discussions took place almost three years ago when more than one million people arrived in Europe across the Mediterranean Sea. As the general tendency in European countries was to take further measures to increase border security, they collaborated with Libya to fortify the North African state's coastguard and finance "third world countries" to keep migrants within their borders, resulting in a significant decrease of people entering Europe via Italy and Greece. According to the International Organisation for Migration, in 2016 more than 360,000 people arrived in Europe by sea and this number fell to approximately 170,000 in 2017. Taking these statistics into consideration, one can hardly insist that there is still a "Migrant Crisis" in Europe. However, does that mean there is no longer a crisis?

"Migrant" label as a barrier

Today, the rhetoric used in the discussion about refugees and migrants seems to have lost its importance. Most mainstream media outlets continue to cover the news from the Mediterranean Sea and Libya with regard to them being "migrants" sold in auctions; how they were tortured and abused; how their boats have sunk; and even how they were eaten by sharks, according to a recent article in the Daily Mail. Somehow, despite all of the fatalities that they have faced over the past few years, they are still described as "migrants".

Why should the label "migrant" bother you? Quite simply, because what labels are used really matters. In fact, they can sometimes put such people into their difficult situation. Labelling someone as a "migrant" is the easiest way for a government to sidestep its responsibilities towards people seeking asylum. Being a migrant means that it is up to the state to look after you and provide shelter, work and education whether you are allowed to enter that country or not as a refugee.

Syrian refugees in Turkish refugee camp

A Syrian child can be seen carrying food aid in a Turkish refugee camp [File photo]

On paper, being a refugee is a right for anyone who is fleeing from violence and persecution; being a migrant is an umbrella term for people who seek to move to another country for other reasons. However, this definition has not always been adopted in public discourse and debate. Instead, the term "migrant" has been manipulated to be perceived as a person who seeks better wages.

We need to acknowledge the discursive connection between "better life" and a "voluntary" decision to migrate, yet what has been experienced in Libya over the years is one of the major examples to show that one cannot know the main motive behind the journey. West Africans who claim to be "seeking a better life in Europe" are people who choose to risk their lives crossing deserts and the Mediterranean Sea with all the dangers involved in order to be able to live decently, and not have any fear for their safety, livelihood and family. These people are seeking a future, a real life anywhere that is not in war-torn, politically unstable countries.

Read: Over 13,000 migrants repatriated from Libya this month

The asylum system is not a safe haven for those refugees, but rather an eliminator that disqualifies them from accessing certain privileges and rights. The authorities have not been focusing on a humane responsibility to provide shelter but, unfortunately, have been discouraging people from seeking a better life, and thus leading them, indirectly and directly, into slavery, sexual assault and many other human rights abuses, if not leaving them to drown in order to deter others from even thinking about trying to seek refuge in Europe.

The mission to discourage people is so obvious that even the attitude of NGOs and international organisations has changed once someone is labelled as a migrant. It is indeed sad to see the Danish Refugee Council releasing a short film implying that "There is nothing special waiting for you here (Europe), do not put yourself in a danger, rather stay in your hometown even if you are in a desperate position."

Politicians have been repeating endlessly that the solution is not in Europe, but in the countries of origin where the problem should be solved, yet nothing has been done and it appears as though no positive change will be taking place in the near future. People will continue to take the risk as there is no other option open to them, unless Europe abandons its "migrant" discourse and takes a more humane approach.

It should be acknowledged by governments that irregular movements will only end when they stop blocking the legitimate ways for people to seek asylum. And we should reassess whether asylum is a favour given to refugees and migrants to earn a better living and send remittances back home, or is in fact their inalienable right because living in their own countries has become dangerous due to the instability, exploitation and destruction also facilitated by greater powers throughout the years.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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