August 23, 2015

Migrants are not the problem ~ the word is a problem

Lately, I've been thinking about the migrants crossing the Mediterranean into Europe. I've been considering the way the word migrant is being used by journalists and politicians alike. Somehow, I think, we have become desensitised to what is really happening, and part of that desensitisation is the repeated use of the word migrant.

When we allow our media and governments to apply reductive terminology to human beings, we get the British foreign minister referring to "marauding migrants," and an increase in hate speech and racism.

We don't really have a migrant crisis in the Mediterranean. In fact, according to the UN, the vast majority of these people are fleeing war. The largest group comes from Syria, a nation where about 300,000 have been killed in that escalating brutality. Others come from Afghanistan, Libya, Eritrea, Somalia and Iraq.

These people are not migrants, nor are they economic migrants. They most definitely are not marauding migrants.They are overwhelmingly refugees escaping the misery and danger of war, which includes, but is not limited to, rape, torture and death. And yet we call them migrants, as though they are on some kind of family excursion. "Oh, let's visit Europe this summer. Maybe next year we can see the Rocky Mountains." Yeah, right.

In the first seven months of this year, about 340,000 people have crossed into Europe. A large number, but in the context of a European population of over 700 million, not so significant at all. Contrast that with Turkey, which hosts almost 2 million refugees from Syria alone, or Lebanon where there are more than a million refugees from Syria.

And so, when hundreds of people drown crossing the Mediterranean in flimsy boats, they aren't called refugees. They are only migrants. Perhaps that is what our governments would have us believe. Perhaps it suits a political agenda to dehumanise the problem, to call them migrants instead of people or refugees.

Words are important. Migrant is a word that robs suffering people of identity and voice.

Not all that long ago we turned away boats filled with European Jews, escaping the madness of that war. We found convenient ways to dehumanise that problem too. Is history repeating itself ? Shame on Europe and shame on us.

Copyright 2015 by Jim Murray.
Photos by Milos Bicanski/Al Jazeera

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