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25 November 2021updated 26 Nov 2021 9:14pm

Pippa Bailey

Why the language we use to talk about the refugee crisis matters

In the media there is something distinctly racist about the double standards with which we apply the word “migrant”.

To see how far we have come – and, spoiler, it is not far at all – in the way we talk about refugees, one only has to play a fun game of: who said it, Tory leader or Edwardian priest?  

“You have got a swarm of people coming across the Mediterranean, seeking a better life, wanting to come to Britain…” “People are really rather afraid that this country might be swamped by people with a different culture…” “In some districts every vestige of comfort had been absolutely wiped out, the foreigners coming in like an army of locusts…”  

The first, of course, was David Cameron’s controversial comment to ITV News at the height of the refugee crisis in July 2015 (comments from which even Nigel Farage attempted to distance himself). The second is Margaret Thatcher speaking in 1978. The third is courtesy of Cosmo Gordon Lang, the bishop of Stepney, writing about the Jewish diaspora in 1902.  

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Lang’s choice of (slightly mixed) metaphors – army and locusts – continue to be the most common way refugees are written about today: either as military invasion (the New York Times carried a picture caption, for example, that described Greek authorities using “tear gas, batons, stun grenades and rubber bullets to repel the hordes”, and last year the Home Secretary, Priti Patel, appointed a “Clandestine Channel Threat Commander” to tackle crossings); or as a natural force – a flood, an influx, a tsunami, a swarm. Both are, obviously, negative images, but they are problematic for different reasons. The first suggests not only that migration happens in some strategised, organised way, but that refugees have a choice about leaving; it is active and deliberate. The second suggests that migration is uncontrollable; it removes the agency of governments to do anything about it – for good or ill.   

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[See also: How much does the UK government really care about fixing the migrant crisis?]

The word “migrant” (often used interchangeably with “immigrant”, though they mean subtly different things) encompasses refugees, but also those who leave their countries of birth for other reasons, such as economic opportunities or education. Refugees, by contrast, are those who flee because of war, persecution or natural disaster. The former indicates choice, which those risking their lives to cross the English Channel in desperation do not have. Moreover, both “migrant” and “immigrant” are examples of nominalisation, or nouns that are formed from verbs. This shift implies identity rather than action; people who migrate are no longer people, but migrants.   

Such language conveniently helps shift the responsibility from governments, as it implies that citizens are moving of their own volition, rather than because the circumstances in their home countries leave them no alternative. Using the word “refugee”, by contrast, acknowledges and calls out conflict, human rights abuses and corruption.  

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The word “illegal” is often found alongside “immigrant”, but this is also wrong – as was Boris Johnson’s assertion last year that crossing the Channel is always “criminal”, much as he might like it to be. For a start, a person cannot be illegal, even if their actions are. For refugees, the action of crossing borders is not illegal: the 1951 Refugee Convention affords them a legal status and states that host governments are responsible for their protection.  

[See also: Twenty-seven people have drowned in the English Channel. This is a predictable – and ongoing – tragedy]

There is also something distinctly racist about the double standards with which we apply the word “migrant”. Consider, for example, the Telegraph headline: “Angela Merkel says ‘nein’ to Theresa May’s calls for early deal on rights of EU migrants and British ex-pats”. When British people migrate (and they do – in 2019 there were 994,000 British nationals living in other EU countries alone), they are described as “expats”, but those who seek refuge or a “better life” in Britain are migrants. The word “expat”, an abbreviation of “expatriate”, originates in the Latin “ex” meaning “out of” and “patria” meaning “country” or “homeland”. An expat is literally anyone who has temporarily or permanently left the place they were born, regardless of ethnicity or class. And yet those moving from Africa or Asia are classified as immigrants. 

These observations are not academic: the way we talk about the refugee crisis matters. There is a clear link between humanising language and empathy. A study by the University of Sheffield found that after the image of Alan Kurdi, a three-year-old Syrian boy, lying dead on a beach went viral in 2015, “refugee” became more commonly used on social media than “migrant”. And it is surely no coincidence that the greatly exaggerated language in the media and politicians’ speeches is mirrored by a greatly exaggerated public belief of the scale of the “problem”. Most Britons overestimate the number of non-British nationals in the UK, believing that around a third of the population are migrants; the real figure is more like 14 per cent.  

We should take care to avoid the easy metaphors of war or disaster, the stigmatising (and incorrect) descriptor “illegal”, and the generic use of “migrant” when what we really mean is refugee. Better yet, call them people.  

[See also: Leader: A fractured continent]

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