Europe and the misrepresentation of refugees

It is not a migrant crisis but predominantly a refugee crisis

Sharif Nashashibi
Sharif Nashashibi
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For weeks now, images and reports of those trying (and dying) to enter Europe have made headline news. However, despite round-the-clock debate by politicians and the media about how best to handle the situation, they are committing a fundamental error that could hinder a just solution. Their very description - a “migrant crisis" - is neither accurate nor fair, contrary to the basic tenets of journalism.

The U.N. high commissioner for refugees and other U.N. officials have made clear that most of those trying to enter Europe are refugees. The definition of a refugee is very different from that of a migrant.

According to the United Nations, migrants “choose to move not because of a direct threat of persecution or death, but mainly to improve their lives by finding work, or in some cases for education, family reunion, or other reasons. Unlike refugees who cannot safely return home, migrants face no such impediment to return.”

Refugees, however, “are persons fleeing armed conflict or persecution. Their situation is often so perilous and intolerable that they cross national borders to seek safety in nearby countries, and thus become internationally recognised as ‘refugees’ with access to assistance from States, UNHCR [the U.N. refugee agency], and other organisations.”

In a nutshell, then, someone is a migrant by choice, but a refugee by force. Most of those heading to Europe are fleeing war-torn countries - primarily Syria followed by Afghanistan, but also Iraq, Somalia, Sudan, Nigeria and Eritrea, among others. As such, it is not a migrant crisis but predominantly a refugee crisis.

To highlight the issue of terminology is not pedantic. “Conflating refugees and migrants can have serious consequences for the lives and safety of refugees,” the UNHCR wrote on Aug. 27. “Blurring the two terms takes attention away from the specific legal protections refugees require. It can undermine public support for refugees and the institution of asylum at a time when more refugees need such protection than ever before.”

Most of those heading to Europe are fleeing war-torn countries. As such, it is not a migrant crisis but predominantly a refugee crisis

Sharif Nashashibi

Countries deal with migrants under their own immigration laws, but refugees are protected under international law. “One of the most fundamental principles laid down in international law is that refugees should not be expelled or returned to situations where their life and freedom would be under threat,” wrote the UNHCR.

Other aspects of refugee protection include “access to asylum procedures that are fair and efficient; and measures to ensure that their basic human rights are respected to allow them to live in dignity and safety while helping them to find a longer-term solution. States bear the primary responsibility for this protection.”


As such, politicians and media figures who are anti-immigration are likely using the term “migrant” so governments can shirk their legal responsibilities toward refugees without a public backlash, given the rise in anti-immigrant sentiment throughout the European Union (EU), and the fact that countries are not obliged to take in migrants. It is also an attempt to deflect blame when those denied entry end up dying, as so many have.

Anti-immigrant sentiment, and the incorrect conflation of refugees and migrants, have given rise to high-profile hostility toward those trying to reach Europe. To take just a few examples from Britain alone, Prime Minister David Cameron and UKIP leader Nigel Farage have described them as a “swarm,” Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond called them “marauding migrants,” and Katie Hopkins, a columnist for The Sun - the country’s highest-circulation newspaper - described them as “cockroaches.”

The misuse of terminology may also be down to ignorance and laziness, with some using the term “migrant” simply because it has caught on. However, that is as inexcusable as being motivated by deceit. News organizations use style guides, which - among other things - clarify the use of certain words, particularly regarding contentious issues.

Given the high-profile nature of the refugee crisis, it would be baffling if high-level discussions were not held, and directives not issued, about appropriate terminology. Furthermore, given the clear difference between migrants and refugees, it is equally baffling that media outlets continue to refer to refugees entering Europe as migrants.

The BBC, for example, has had the words “migrant crisis” in large letters on screen throughout its coverage. This despite its website containing an article by Ruud Lubbers, former U.N. high commissioner for refugees, who writes that refugees and migrants - “two distinct groups of people” - are “increasingly being confused, and increasingly being treated in the same way: with mistrust, even hatred and outright rejection.”

He concludes: “We have to be clear about who is a refugee and who is a migrant, and not sacrifice one to keep out the other.” This was written in April 2004, providing ample time for the BBC to get it right.


One can sense an element of racism in certain quarters regarding the choice of terminology. Syrians languishing in the Middle East are readily described as refugees until they reach Europe, at which point they inexplicably become migrants even though their circumstances have not changed.

In addition, anti-immigrant sentiment in Europe is often expressed specifically in relation to Muslims. Last month, Slovakia said it would only take in Syrian Christians, not their Muslim compatriots.

Last week, Hungary’s prime minister wrote in a German newspaper that it was important to secure his country’s borders from mainly Muslim refugees “to keep Europe Christian.” This despite the fact that up to August, the number of those who reached Europe so far this year constituted just 0.027 percent of the continent’s total population.

It would be preposterous - and deeply offensive - to describe European refugees during the two world wars as migrants. Present-day refugees should be afforded the same humanity and respect. We should be letting the media and politicians know - factually and firmly but politely - that their misrepresentation of the crisis is unacceptable, illogical, and does a grave disservice to the many who are suffering so greatly.

Sharif Nashashibi, a regular contributor to Al Arabiya News, The Middle East magazine and the Guardian, is an award-winning journalist and frequent interviewee on Arab affairs. He is co-founder of Arab Media Watch, an independent, non-profit watchdog set up in 2000 to strive for objective coverage of Arab issues in the British media. With an MA in International Journalism from London's City University, Nashashibi has worked and trained at Dow Jones Newswires, Reuters, the U.N. Development Programme in Palestine, the Middle East Broadcasting Centre, the Middle East Economic Survey in Cyprus, and the Middle East Times, among others. In 2008, he received the International Media Council's "Breakaway Award," given to promising new journalists, "for both facilitating and producing consistently balanced reporting on the highly emotive and polarized arena that is the Middle East." He can be found on Twitter: @sharifnash

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
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