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They Aren't Just "Migrants," They're Refugees

When we call the crisis a "migrant crisis," we're missing the broader picture.

Sinthujan Varatharajah

Photo via Flickr user Commander, U.S. Naval Forces. Hospital Corpsman 2nd Class Katherine Stafford treats a mother and child after a medical evacuation aboard the USS Bataan. Bataan transferred 277 persons in distress to the Armed Forces of Malta offshore patrol vessel P61.

Last month, a collision between a crowded Libyan vessel full of refugees with a Portuguese container ship off the coast of Tripoli led to the deaths of several hundred people. The sinking—one of the largest tragedies the Mediterranean Sea has seen—followed last year's controversial EU decision to cease the Italian-led stop-and-rescue operation, Mare Nostrum. It was replaced by the Frontex-led operation Triton, the aim of which is not to save lives, but to reinforce sea borders and deter people from future seacrossings. As recently reiterated by the head of the EU's border agency, saving drowning refugees is, even after the tragic death of up to 900 people, not Triton's priority or interest.

The EU's decision to substitute rescue missions with border patrols has come at a high price. Between January and April 2015, more than 1700 people are reported to have perished in the Mediterranean, one hundred times the deaths recorded in the same period last year, according to Amnesty International. Most of the dead fled from well-known conflict regions including Syria, Eritrea, Afghanistan, Somalia, Iraq, and Palestine, to name just a few.

To name refugees migrants is not an arbitrary decision. It's a political one.

Most passengers from last month's Libyan vessel heading towards Europe were, accordingly, of Syrian, Eritrean, and Somali origin. Although all three countries are regularly cited among the world's largest refugee-producing states, the crisis that followed the latest vessel sinking was titled by media not a "refugee crisis" but a "migrant crisis."

Following the tragedy, hashtags like #migrantcrisis, #MigrantLivesMatter, and #migrantdeath widely spread on Twitter. Politicians and media reports from all political spectrums labeled the victims as "dead migrants" or "migrant victims," the boat a "migrant vessel" and the people responsible as "migrant smugglers." There is, of course, nothing factually incorrect with considering refugees migrants. Refugees, in seeking a safer and better life elsewhere, migrate from one location to another. But semantics matter. To name refugees migrants is not an arbitrary decision. It's a political one.

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Refugees are individuals and groups who fear for their lives and flee from persecution, violence, and disasters, either anthropogenic or produced by nature. Their journey is provoked by violence, desperation, and trauma. They are forcefully uprooted by events beyond their control and compelled to and seek refuge and asylum elsewhere.

"Migrants," on the other hand, typically describes people seeking better livelihoods, moving for better job opportunities, education, or marital prospects. Though they can be from anywhere in the world, migrants are mostly construed as non-white and poor, perceived as being driven by economic motives. White middle-class migrants are, on the other hand, designated a far less toxic label: that of "expats," a term that underlines both racial and class privileges, as well as upward mobility.

The reflexive use of these labels in the media conveys more than just literal meaning: it is worth noting the way that refugees and asylum seekers have been referred to as "migrants" with reference to the disasters in the Mediterranean. Equally telling is the use of the term whenever anti-asylum legislations are debated in parliaments, a symptom of the assumption that asylum seekers are simply another kind of "economic migrants." This has led to the invention of the so-called "bogus refugee," a term widely used by conservatives and the political right since the 1980s, to dismiss the life-threatening concerns of asylum seekers and declare them as "benefit seekers," "system exploiters," and "queue jumpers."

By naming modern-day refugees migrants, we erase and negate their suffering, ignore the forced nature and politics behind their movements, and consciously or subconsciously question the violence that has left them little choice but to leave their homes and risk their lives by crossing the sea and fortified borders. We also circumvent compassion by converting them in our minds from human beings to a one-dimensional image, defined by its "otherness" and imposing nature. The modern-day refugee becomes a migrant when we imagine her as someone who has more than a single choice, who has voluntarily decided to leave her homeland for greener pastures elsewhere.

Demonizing "migrants" as threats and enemies to the welfare of the state is far easier than demonizing "genuine refugees," who are quickly reduced to victims.

This notion contrasts with the historical figure of the refugee. For many, the refugee's experience of forced displacement is a tale from the past. In Europe, legislators set benchmarks to conceptualize the figure of the refugee and determine who can be considered a "genuine" refugee depending on political, economic, social, and cultural interests. This denial of the reality of refugee life, particularly the choiceless nature of the decision to flee one's home, has other consequences: it effectively aids the criminalization of the act of seeking asylum. The European right to seek asylum has turned into a guarantee of rejection and deportation for thousands. This severe approach is also recognizable in the EU's Mediterranean Sea politics, where officials use militaristic language when talking of immigrants in terms of 'combating' them while 'defending' borders. Demonizing "migrants" as threats to the welfare of the state is, after all, far easier than demonizing "genuine refugees," who are quickly reduced to victims.

When the media labels refugees "migrants," there are subtle but powerful politics at play. The public is left to believe that crucial categorical and political distinctions are irrelevant in the face of the mass-arrivals of racialized people, who are perceived as a monolithic and one-dimensional group.

But migration isn't always just migration, and semantics are rarely just semantics.

Sinthujan Varatharajah is a PhD student in Political Geography at University College London, where he researches spaces of asylum and resistance. He was born in a refugee camp in Germany.

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