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Manoj Suresh asked: Why Western media often refers to the Syrian ‘refugees’ as ‘migrants’? Is there any strategy behind it?

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  • Mathew Sinu Simon replies: The terms ‘refugee’ and ‘migrant’ are being increasingly used interchangeably in the media and in public discussions. The two terms, however, have different connotations and legal implications.

    The Syrians fleeing from civil war are refugees. They come under the purview of the definition of a refugee as laid down by the International Organisation for Migration (IOM). A refugee is defined as: a person who “owing to a well-founded fear of persecution for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinions, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country.”

    Further, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) defines refugees as “persons fleeing armed conflict or persecution”. In contrast, migrants are defined as people “who 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.”

    If the media frame those fleeing Syria as migrants then it follows that the public and politicians are likely to be less inclined to offer their support, financial or otherwise, as they believe that people are moving not out of fear for their lives but rather for better paid work or an easier life. Also, seeking refugee status calls for entitlements to basic protection which the receiving countries in Europe are not keen to extend.

    As observed by the UNHCR, “Politics has a way of intervening in such debates. Conflating refugees and migrants can have serious consequences for the lives and safety of refugees. Blurring the two terms takes attention away from the specific legal protections refugees require.” There is no strategy per se in referring refugees as migrants. It is the case of not willing to understand the finer nuances of the refugee crisis in Europe by the Western media. However, the media has also done certain introspection in this regard and appears to be relatively cautious in their references.

    For more on the subject, please refer to the following publications:

    “UNHCR viewpoint: ‘Refugee’ or ‘migrant’ - Which is right?”, UNHCR, August 27, 2015.

    Aidan White, “Moving Stories: International Review of How Media Cover Migration”, Ethical Journalism Network, London, 2015, pp. 11-12.

    Posted on July 11, 2016