Saturday, September 12, 2015

"Refugee" or "Migrant"?

Here is an example of the importance of something as simple as the choice of a word that could impact the lives of millions of people.   

As some of you may know, there is a specific legal definition of the word “refugee.”  Someone who is fleeing a country because of individual persecution (e.g. because of his or her political activity) or to escape war (e.g. Syria) has a human right, according to international law, to get asylum in another country. But someone who is entering a country for economic reasons (e.g. because their home country is impoverished) does not have the legal claim.

There are many ethical and economic issues here that complicate what countries should do. There is a lot of evidence that immigrants increase the economic growth of their adopted country, especially those in the developed world that have aging populations.  There are also lots of ethical arguments that accepting impoverished people and giving them a chance at a better life is the right thing to do.  But neither of these are legal reasons. So people in this category are “migrants”, which means anyone who wants to move from one country to another.  But they are not “refugees”.

As the linked story explains, the media has a lot of power in how this story will play out.  Regardless of the legal, economic, or ethical requirements and definitions, public opinion has a huge effect on what governments ultimately will decide to do. We see this happening in Hungary, Denmark, Macedonia, and many other countries along the migrants’ travel routes.  And in the U.S., particularly among the GOP primary candidates.

In every shipload, carload, or walking group that enters a country, there is a mix of economic, political, and war reasons. So what should the media call them?

  1. They could use the general term “migrant”, which covers all of them.  This could push public opinion against accepting them, because migrants don’t automatically have the right of asylum. But it is accurate.
  2. They could use the specific term “refugee”, which is correct for some, but not all.  This could push public opinion towards accepting them, suggesting (even if untrue) that all or most of the people have a legal claim.
  3. They could use both terms “refugees and migrants” to indicate that there are both.  This could simply confuse the public because many of the media target audience (us) don’t know the legal difference.
So the media executives sitting in a room deciding how their newspaper, TV station, or website will refer to these individuals could decide whether they ultimately are allowed to stay in the country. Possibly millions of people.  That is some serious influence.