Migration Pulse

Al Jazeera will not say Mediterranean 'migrants', but we should

By rejecting the term and using ‘refugee’ instead as a means of arousing the empathy and compassion we should be feeling towards these people, Al Jazeera gives credence to the illiberal voices telling us that migrants are not worthy of our compassion.
August 24, 2015
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Judith Vonberg

Judith Vonberg is a PhD student studying the mutual perceptions of Britons and Germans after the Second World War. She has a strong interest in issues relating to migration and nationality and has worked with and written for several migrant organisations including Migrant Voice, STAR (Student Action for Refugees) and BritCits.

A blog published on Al Jazeera’s English language website last Thursday has caused something of a media storm. With over 50,000 shares on Facebook and 8,000 on Twitter, Barry Malone’s piece on why Al Jazeera is no longer using the word ‘migrant’ to refer to the people crossing the Mediterranean has struck a chord. Global interest in the article is growing, not least because of a supportive mention in The Independent’s online i100, up-voted 52 times and advocating that ‘we’ should follow Al Jazeera’s example.



What does Malone argue?

Malone argues that the word ‘migrant’ has ‘evolved from its dictionary definitions into a tool that dehumanises and distances, a blunt pejorative’. He is right.

He argues that ‘migrant deaths are not worth as much to the media as the deaths of others’. Again, sadly, he is right.

He argues that ‘when we in the media do this, when we apply reductive terminology to people, we help to create an environment in which a British foreign minister can refer to "marauding migrants,” and in which hate speech and thinly veiled racism can fester.’ Once again, a valid point.

Yet he concludes, ‘Migrant is a word that strips suffering people of voice. Substituting it for refugee is – in the smallest way – an attempt to give some back.’ This is where he gets it wrong.

Malone’s mistake

By rejecting the term and using ‘refugee’ instead as a means of arousing the empathy and compassion we should be feeling towards these people, Al Jazeera gives credence to the illiberal voices telling us that migrants are not worthy of our compassion.

Seeming to take a noble stand in support of the vulnerable, Malone instead excludes migrants from the liberal side of the debate, leaving them at the mercy of right-wing hostility and reinforcing the dichotomy of ‘good refugee’ and ‘bad migrant’ that he claims to despise.

This is unwelcome for two reasons. Firstly, the distinction between a migrant and a refugee is rarely as clear-cut as we (and Malone) would like. The majority of people arriving in Greece come from a war-torn, poverty stricken or intensely unstable country where life is desperate and the future bleak. Even if an individual is not fleeing persecution and cannot therefore be called a refugee, their situation is often equally traumatic. Yet Al Jazeera is denying these people a voice, just as it claims to be doing the opposite.

Secondly, a migrant is defined as ‘a person who moves from one place to another in order to find work or better living conditions’. Surely this is a person with whom we could all empathise, or at least identify? We all aspire to better lives, for ourselves and for our children, whether this means moving house, changing towns or crossing borders. Those who are forced to change continents, leave or uproot their families and face a treacherous journey in that search are deserving of our respect, even our compassion. But again, Malone, along with much of the British media, denies them this.

We should reclaim the word ‘migrant’

Al Jazeera’s decision, although stemming from a laudable desire to challenge dehumanizing rhetoric, is naïve and alarming. It reflects a refusal to acknowledge the complex make-up of the boatloads arriving in Europe and a failure to effectively counter anti-migrant rhetoric.

Instead of rejecting ‘migrant’, we should reclaim it from those who have worked to turn in it into a term of abuse.  The term migrant ought to be accepted as a neutral descriptor which covers the situation of everyone who migrates, whether in exercise of a positive right as a citizen through to the desperate search for a safe haven.  When we need to be more specific, ‘refugee’ and ‘asylum’ provide more of the detail of the phenomenon that must be understood. 

In a world of globalized politics and economics an objective terminology is needed that gets us beyond the demonology of the ‘good’ and the ‘bad’ frontier crosser, and helps us to understand just how interconnected are the realities of people movement in all the circumstances in which it occurs.


I think you make some excellent points, which under normal circumstances I would wholeheartedly agree with. However in this instance I am afraid I agree more with Barry Malone's piece.

The word 'migrant' has lost much of its meaning. As much as politicians and the press (all press) often use the word thinking of those who move abroad for economic improvement, the liberalism with which they use it makes it comparable to anyone who moves. Thus the migrant of the BBC, the Express, the Guardian and Michael Fallon is as much someone who moves to London from Leeds as someone who travels to Italy from Senegal.

Whilst it's never good to give up, I fear it would be fighting a losing battle to try to change the national understanding of the word 'migrant'. I think following Al Jazeera's lead, removing the word and focusing on the humanity of the individuals making often perilous journeys is the best solution.

Once coverage has improved, the word 'migrant' can then be better used, better understood and (hopefully) lead to less anger and greater empathy.

Thanks for your comments, Ben. You make a valid point. However, beyond the argument I make here, it's simply wrong to refer to all the people arriving in Europe as refugees. Even Malone acknowledges this when he says that the 'majority' are refugees - allowing for a 'minority' of migrants. It's also true that we simply don't know at the moment how many are refugees and how many are economic migrants.

This is why I, like MRN, would like to see 'migrant' being used as an all-encompassing term that contains within it economic migrants, refugees, asylum seekers, international students etc. The complexities go beyond simple categorisations and I strongly feel that Al Jazeera's decision lends credence to those often misunderstood labels.

Another way in which the term "migrant" has become contaminated is that, because the word itself contains no information about when or how the migration occurred, judgements about people trying to migrate now by desperate means are transferred to those who have migrated many years ago through authorised channels - and sometimes to their children and grandchildren whatever their legal citizenship. An alternative definition to the one given above is "born abroad". Under that definition there many of us who have lived and worked in Britain since early childhood, and have British citizenship, are still migrants. It's illuminating, as a white pensioner in a rural town, to see that the hate headlines, at least technically, include me.

language evolves with the public perception of the definition to a word is as we live the Al Jazeera move when understood is good with me but both sides of the argument should be heard.

thank you ed surridge

Judith, we do know the nationalities of those arriving across the Mediterranean - in Greece for example more than 85% are from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan and therefore are considered refugees by UNHCR. Other nationalities arriving also meet this criteria. So it is more accurate to use the term refugees in this case rather than migrants.

Laura, isn't the point being made here that it is not a matter of ether a 'migrant' or a 'refugee'.  The truth is that the term 'refugee' ought to be regarded as a sub-category of 'migrant', so that a refugee is properly seen as a migrant who migrates in a particular set of forced conditions - ie because of flight from conflict or because of fear of persection. The business of resisting the demonisation of people into the people liberal consciences can regard as 'good' (ie in need of our protection) and those who are seen as 'bad' (prepared to act on their own initiative to avoid becoming dependent on the exercise of our liberal conscience) requires that we insist on the connection between the two.  Ulitmately it might prove that the best way to avoid desparate refugee situations is to allow many more people to move freely as 'economic' migrants.

"The term migrant ought to be accepted as a neutral descriptor which covers the situation of everyone who migrates". Unfortunately the reality is by far very different. The term 'migrant' is still seen as a plague all across Europe, including in central European countries which recently joined the EU.

The reality of Europe is that a migrant is a problem, whether he / she came for economical or political reasons. The everyday life shows no distinction between migrants and refugees.

Reclaiming the terminology seems to be what's left at a time where tension are seriously growing between intra European migrants - central european workers in the UK, the 'Romanian plumber', the Rom,... and indigenous Europeans.

It goes a far as considering that third generation descendants of migrants are still considered as migrants.

Rhetoric won't help.

I don't want to get into the nitty-gritty of definitions and semantics, because that only divides people who should be uniting against the real enemies. Whether we try to redeem misused terminology or simply use something different isn't really the issue - we have the same arguments around using 'asylum' or 'sanctuary'. What matters is that Al Jazeera has thought about it enough to take some positive action. They are simply saying to the David Cameron's of this world, who refer to those crossing the Med as 'economic migrants' - "no they are NOT! Just look at the countries they are coming from!"
Personally I think Al Jazeera should be applauded, as they have taken a stand on behalf of good journalism as opposed to some of the shallow rubbish that pretends to be journalism.

The important thing is not to use the phrase 'migrant problem'. It is a migrant TRAGEDY and that is what we should call it.

You talk about reclaiming the word 'migrant' but nowhere is any attempt to make a real argument other than people ought to identify and be sympathetic towards other people. Maybe children believe they will survive because the good fairy will look after them but adults realise that transactions need to provide a benefit to both parties. If you want to reclaim the word 'migrant' and win the argument you need to explain why migration is good not only for the migrants but also for the host peoples. Maybe you should stop messing about with the perceptions of words and face the issue head on.

Part of the process of reclaiming the use of "migrant" ought to include making more conspicuous use of it also in cases where it would not be the word of choice by those who use it as a tool of dehumanisation. As long as there is a distinction between "migrant" and "ex-pat", the battle is lost.

Hi Judith,

This is an excellent piece of work and yes we need to focus on conscious or subconscious terminological errors done to define 'refugee', 'asylum seeker', 'labour migrant', and so on. The sweeping term 'migrant' does not change the reality of the fact that no matter what is the main cause is 'migration' cannot be stopped and we ought to learn to co-exist and treat each other as humans. Negative connotation of the term 'migrant' which is commonly used along with the terms 'security and terrorism' recently dehumanize refugees who fled from conflict zones further.

Closed border policies clearly has failed and the failure of the states' foreign policy strategies have proven that forced migration has become and will continue to be the focal point in the world in coming years.

Well done again with your great work, and thanks.