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.