Conflict, Vocabulary

‘Refugee’ is a Not a Name; It’s Something Done to You. 

Syria Camp
As thousands risk their lives to flee their homes in what has come to be known as “Europe’s Migrant Crisis” the Al Jazeera News Network announced that it will no longer use the term migrant, stating that,

“The umbrella term migrant is no longer fit for purpose when it comes to describing the horror unfolding in the Mediterranean. It has evolved from its dictionary definitions into a tool that dehumanises and distances….”

Instead, Al Jazeera argues, the term refugee better describes the reality of those who are fleeing unlivable conditions for a chance at – not just a better life – but for many, a chance to live at all.

I’ve argued before that naming is important, and Al Jazeera is right to make this consideration. However, in the midst of the refugee vs. migrant terminology debate, I still wonder if either word captures the reality of the situation. 

Both migrant and refugee refer to states of being. Just like fireman or high-school graduate, these terms indicate something you are. When used in the context of this crisis, both words deceptively imply something permanent, even preexisting – as if some people just are, and always have been refugees

Refugee conjures up images of the  dispossessed, struggling in overpopulated camps or at blocked borders. And while these images are often accurate depictions of the present reality, the term does not conjure up images of the stable lives many of these individuals once had – stable lives that were interrupted.

It’s that interruption that the term refugee fails to highlight. As this recent viral video demonstrates – depicting a fictional girl’s transition from happy pre-teen to life as a refugee – there is always much more backstory than the label implies.

As the video illustrates, refugees aren’t born; they’re made. Policies that have led to untenable poverty or all out war have put them in that place – policies that are choices, not inevitabilities. A refugee is not something people intrinsically are; it is something we, as a global community, have done to them. 

So while the difference between a refugee and a migrant may be an important legal distinctionas a moral distinction, neither word is sufficient. They are both passive-voice constructions that obscure any cause or actor. And obscuring a cause removes the onus for a solution.

Instead, consider  the impact of phrases like “people we’ve displaced” or “those we’ve made refugees.” While the constructions may be clunkier in a news headline, this is a case where precision and impact matters more than economy of words. The phrases more fully reflect the reality of the situation, what has caused it, and our imperative to solve it.

When it comes down to it, people aren’t crowding onto leaky boats because they’d like like to have a bigger house or have a predilection for European culture. They are fleeing because global policies have left their homes untenable, whether that be through war or economic stagnation. In a world where 15 countries control 84% of the world’s wealth, it’s a no-brainer that people will flock to these countries. No border, policy, or even comprehensive immigration reform will stem this tide.

There are many laudable efforts being made to address the plight of those we’ve made refugees, and this work must continue as an immediate solution to an immediate crisis. But while a gaping wound first needs a bandage, the bandage will not heal the underlying condition. Our discussions around this crisis, and the language we use to discuss it, can’t be locked in an ideology that such crises are created in a vacuum. We must instead examine the policies, systems, and global wealth distribution we’ve enacted that have, and will continue to displace and disenfranchise those we’ve made refugees.

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Follow on Twitter @ChrisKBacon

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