Last week, Al Jazeera announced they're dropping the word "migrant" when discussing people who cross the Mediterranean from Asia and Africa. This might seem like a challenge — after all, Europe is currently facing the biggest refugee crisis since World War II — but it doesn't mean they'll be cutting their coverage of the issue. Rather, they're changing their language in efforts to better represent the humans behind these numbers.
In a piece published on the outlet's blog, Al Jazeera editor Barry Malone muses, "What would it feel like if that experience – your frantic flight from war – was then diminished by a media that crudely labelled you and your family 'migrants'?" He explains that many of the people who make the harrowing journey to Europe by land and sea are from Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Eritrea and Somalia, all countries whose citizens are regularly granted asylum.
Malone points to a British foreign secretary who recently proclaimed "marauding immigrants" from Africa were threatening the standard of living in the U.K. and elsewhere. This rhetoric has been echoed by politicians in the U.S., who actively stereotype undocumented immigrants as criminals and opportunists.
"Migrants" sound like faceless figures with no roots and no stories worth listening to. When people use the term "migrant" flippantly, migrants become replaceable and subhuman. Saying migrant instead of refugee also obscures their reasons for leaving. Many of the people being discussed qualify for political asylum, and even those who don't are often leaving unimaginable poverty.
Countries like Iceland are rethinking their policies around refugees after public outrage at the low quota of Syrians the government said it would allow to enter the country. In response, 11,000 Icelanders declared they would be happy to house Syrian refugees themselves.
The media has tremendous power in representing the stories of people displaced by war and other crises, and in many ways the language surrounding people in these situations operates as an added layer of violence.
But the crisis in the Mediterranean isn't the only case where this word is being used with tremendous power.
The "migrant" coverage problem goes beyond the crisis in Europe, though. When reporting on the Dominica Republic's efforts to strip Haitian immigrants and Dominicans of Haitian descent of their citizenship, many media outlets have describe the potentially stateless people as "migrant workers." For starters, this is inaccurate. The law would impact anyone born in the Dominican Republic after 1929, and a person who has lived in one place his or her entire life is not a migrant. Beyond the literal inaccuracy of using the term migrant, there is symbolic weight that comes with talking about deporting migrant workers. "Migrant workers" are rootless. Sure, there's an anonymous place they came from, or more importantly, a border they snuck through. But there is a connotation that migrants are inherently nomadic, and as "workers" instead of "people" or "citizens," they serve a purpose that only extends as far as their labor.
You may have also heard about the boatloads of people wandering the Indian Ocean around Thailand and Malaysia, seeking a place to dock with limited help from any local governments. The "migrants" in question are Myanmar's Rohingya, a Muslim minority in the majority Buddhist country that has been facing persecution at the hands of the government for decades. Again, coverage of the refugee crisis in Southeast Asia has explored the Rohingya's rejection by Thailand, Malaysia, and Indonesia and the deplorable conditions they face on their ships, but tends to mention their origins only tangentially.
Appreciating what they are fleeing is key to understanding why they are trying to "sneak across borders," and it makes inaction by people and governments feel that much more frightening.
Learn more about the refugee crisis in Europe in the video below.