This is a human tragedy, not a ‘migration crisis’

MaltaToday has taken an editorial stand to stop using the word migrant; a term which dehumanises the people risking their lives on a daily basis

A photo that recently went viral on the Internet speaks volumes about the growing disconnection between the ongoing human tragedy occurring in the Mediterranean, and how it is being reported in the media.

It was taken on the Greek island of Kos, and shows a weeping Syrian man cradling his two children on one of the many boats ferrying thousands of would-be refugees into Europe. In one respect, the message is one of hope: the man’s tears are of relief at having survived the perilous crossing, and being reunited with his wife. But what emerges is also the humanity of the people caught up in this ordeal: the fear that was left behind in war-torn countries, and the uncertainty they now face.

Above all it throws into sharp focus the often dehumanising tone reserved for such people in public discourse: for instance, the way they are bundled under the loose, faceless category of ‘migrants’… which in turn is often further devalued by the unnecessary (and technically inaccurate) adjective ‘illegal’. 

This tendency to reduce all such human protagonists to a series of increasingly soulless statistics – with headlines such as ‘200 migrants die in latest boat tragedy’ – can be seen to have increased. And there is mounting evidence that this sort of media representation may have a profound impact on the way these people are perceived.

Al Jazeera recently took the editorial decision to eschew the term ‘migrants’ altogether, arguing that the word has transcended its original meaning and now serves a purely pejorative purpose. The channel’s online editor, Barry Malone, made a powerful case for the argument that this transition was in part deliberate. Migration has risen to become a major political issue in Europe, and among certain political groupings there are obvious advantages to be gained from subliminally transforming these human victims of circumstance into the ‘villains of the piece’. 

With resistance to integration mounting all over Europe, the anti-immigrant vote is easy pickings for politicians who pander to the popular mood. It serves a useful political purpose to reduce thousands of people to the status of a ‘threat’: which, unfortunately, is what the word ‘migrant’ has come to mean in public discourse. 

Once an entire substratum of person has been dehumanised through excessive use of that word, it becomes easy to further demonise them by adding openly hostile qualifiers such as ‘marauding migrants’ (to quote the UK foreign secretary Philip Hammond). 

Even the more widespread (and less immediately offensive) term ‘illegal immigrants’ can be seen to serve a similar purpose. In reality there is no such thing as an ‘illegal immigrant’. The Universal Charter of Human Rights provides the underpinning for all European legislation; and it makes it abundantly clear that seeking asylum in other countries is not only perfectly legal, but also an inalienable right enjoyed by all people, regardless of their legal status in any country.

Even the word ‘migrant’ itself, shorn of any adjective, is clearly insufficient to describe the phenomenon taking place around us. This year alone, over 2,000 people have died attempting to cross the Mediterranean. These were not merely ‘migrants’; they were mothers and fathers, sons and daughters, people with aspirations and dreams of a better life elsewhere. Some may have fled wars or natural disasters; but even those who are usually described (in yet another reductive generalisation) as ‘economic migrants’ are also people with their own, often harrowing tales to tell.

Admittedly, on a practical level it is easier to use simple, blanket terminology to describe complex situations. But at the best of times this is a misrepresentation of the reality being described. And under the current circumstances, it is also irresponsible to cement misconceptions that are in turn fuelling a worrying increase in racism and xenophobia.

Our own local experience bears this argument out. A recent survey conducted by this newspaper shows clearly that resistance to integration is at its highest amongst those categories which had little or no exposure to foreigners. In this case, it is unfamiliarity that breeds contempt – and the reductive language used to describe these people is a major factor contributing to widespread ignorance on the subject of migration.

The media and people in public positions must bear these considerations in mind when dealing with the issue. Local standards of reportage have often failed to live up to the standards of responsible reporting: all too often, brazenly xenophobic attitudes have been cemented and inculcated through thoughtless use of language.

Perhaps the lowest ebb was reached when a TVM news item likened a boatload of asylum seekers with an influx of jellyfish. Elsewhere, the deliberate dehumanisation of asylum seekers has been used to justify increasingly racialised policies such as Malta’s arbitrary (later declared illegal) detention policy, which only perpetuate a vicious cycle of abuse. 

Even without such extreme examples, few can deny that there has been resistance – both in the media and in political discourse – to treat the ongoing tragedy in the Mediterranean for what it is: a human crisis, as opposed to a crisis affecting only ‘migrants’.

Al Jazeera’s stand is therefore to be applauded and emulated, and MaltaToday will be following suit.