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Al Jazeera Denies 'Politicising' Migrant Crisis In Deciding To Call People 'Refugees' Instead

25/08/2015 12:29 BST | Updated 25/08/2015 13:59 BST

A major broadcaster has denied "politicising" the migrant crisis by trying to more accurately describe those risking their lives to come to Europe.

Al Jazeera (AJ) announced it would begin calling those trying to flee "refugees" rather than the more ambigious term "migrants" favoured by most of the press.

In a blog, AJ English online editor Barry Malone said: "It is not hundreds of people who drown when a boat goes down in the Mediterranean, nor even hundreds of refugees. It is hundreds of migrants. It is not a person – like you, filled with thoughts and history and hopes – who is on the tracks delaying a train. It is a migrant. A nuisance."

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Migrants or refugees?

Salah Negm, director of news at Al Jazeera, denied they were "politicising" the debate on Newsnight on Monday, after AJ's decision made waves.

He said: "Migrant is a loaded word. If you think about public psyche and understanding of migrant - economic migrant, illegal migrant. While there's an international definition of refugee."

Describing AJ's editorial decision-making, he said: "Shall we call them immigrants, and conceal the real problem? Or refugees to use when appropriate, and among them are migrants. That way, we can dissect the problem and actually tackle it."

He was responding to host Evan Davis' comments that it was political to change the term. Davis suggested both migrant and refugee were potentially loaded terms and "someone who thinks 'migrant' is pejorative is probably going to think 'refugee' is pejorative."

Tim Stanley, historian and Daily Telegraph columnist, told the programme he was "sympathetic" to journalists who try to be sensitive in their coverage of the crisis.

But he said, though the vast majority of them were refugees according to the UN, calling all of them this word was an attempt to "politically put the onus on Europe to accept everyone without conditions and without due process".

"I suspect that's the thinking behind it," he said. "I'm sympathetic to the moral cause but I think that deprives Europe of its sovereignty to process every individual case."

He added those coming from a country such as Nigeria were "economic migrants" because they were coming from a place that had no "war or oppressive government".

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AJ's editorial decision prompted debate among journalists and workers about how to describe the people who are increasingly dominating the news bulletins and for whom there seems to be little hope of a quick political solution.

The NGO Migrants' Rights Network hosted a blog that criticised AJ's decision, saying: "By rejecting the term and using ‘refugee’ instead as a means of arousing the empathy and compassion we should be feeling towards these people, Al Jazeera gives credence to the illiberal voices telling us that migrants are not worthy of our compassion."

Channel 4 News Internal Editor Lindsey Hilsum, who has reported on the migrant crisis, described seeing people fleeing the war in Syria who clearly met any common definition of "refugee" but added: "What about the three Nigerians who had been working as cleaners in Istanbul, lost their jobs, and were heading north looking for better opportunities?

"They claimed they were fleeing Boko Haram, but they came from the capital, Abuja, not the area controlled by the jihadis, so that would be like fleeing France because of the Charlie Hebdo attacks.

"By the dictionary definition, then, they’re migrants. I see no shame in that – I too have travelled looking for work and adventure. But when I lived in Kenya in the 1980s, cobbling together a living as a freelance journalist, people called me an ‘expat’ not a migrant."

She added: "The latter word is rarely used for people from wealthy western countries."