DAY after day, images of soaked and exhausted parents clutching their glassy-eyed children as they arrive on Europe’s shores make their way around the world.
That they are desperate and vulnerable after a harrowing journey across the Mediterranean on rickety rafts or packed ships is beyond doubt. But does that make them refugees from war or oppression, with a right to protection under international law, or are they better described as migrants, a term that usually refers to people simply seeking a better life in another country?
The scenes of human suffering, resilience, hope and rejection playing out in the Mediterranean have sparked an emotional and politically charged debate about what to call the hundreds of thousands of people from Africa and the Middle East entering Europe.
Al-Jazeera last week announced that it will stop using the word migrants in its news coverage, saying it doesn’t describe the “horror unfolding in the Mediterranean,” where almost 2,500 people have died this year. The word “has evolved from its dictionary definitions into a tool that dehumanises and distances, a blunt pejorative,” Al-Jazeera online editor Barry Malone said. Al-Jazeera will instead say refugee “where appropriate”.
The move was applauded by some human rights advocates worried about a hardening of anti-immigrant attitudes in Europe but criticised by others, who said it implies that only refugees, not migrants, are worthy of compassion. Legally, there is a crucial distinction. The UN refugee agency says it boils down to whether the person is being pushed or pulled: a migrant is someone who seeks better living conditions in another country; a refugee is someone who flees persecution, conflict or war.
Only members of the latter group are likely to be granted asylum in Europe.