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03/09/2015 14:30 BST | Updated 03/09/2015 14:59 BST

Refugee Crisis Media Coverage Highlights Importance Of Words And How They Are Used

The language used to describe those affected by the current migration crisis has often blurred the line between those leaving their countries for economic betterment and those forced to leave to protect themselves and their families.

And more and more people are beginning to call out the use of the term 'migrant' to describe bone fide refugees - otherwise human beings like the rest of us.

And former foreign secretary David Miliband spoke to MSNBC on Wednesday to clarify terms being used to describe the millions affected by the current migration crisis – and the difference between an economic migrant and a refugee.

“There’s a huge difference,” he said, “and one of the most dangerous things, including in Britain, is the fact that the idea of a refugee, the status of someone who has a well-founded fear of persecution, which is the definition of a refugee in international law.

So what are the differences? And why do they matter?

Dictionary definitions point toward the key differences. The Oxford English Dictionary describes a migrant as "a person who moves from one place to another in order to find work or better living conditions".

And it describes a refugee as "a person who has been forced to leave their country in order to escape war, persecution, or natural disaster".

The foundation of an internationally recognised refugee status came with the 1951 Refugee Convention.

Its written definition states that a refugee is someone who "owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality, and is unable to, or owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country."

Economic migrants, according to the UNHCR, choose to move in order to improve the future prospects of themselves and their relatives.

migrants newspaper

Newspaper front pages often use the word migrants in a pejorative sense

Economic migrants, unlike refugees, do not necessarily suffer persecution.

Refugees do not have protection from their own state – and often it’s their own government that is persecuting them.

And the responsibility of other countries is laid out.

The UNHCR says: “If other countries do not let them in, and do not help them once they are in, then they may be condemning them to death - or to an intolerable life in the shadows, without sustenance and without rights.”

So why aren’t things clear?

Despite some clearly written definitions in the Convention, politicians, the media, and the public often confuse the terms around migration.

Rob McNeil of the Migration Observatory at Oxford says that the problem with current terminology isn’t so much about words – but how they are used. Something it highlighted in a recent study.

He told HuffPost UK: “The challenge with migration – or its terminology – is that it’s unspecific.

“Other than refugee and asylum seeker, no terms have clearly defined meaning.

“But the terminology is extremely important – not necessarily the words, but how they are used, how they are loaded.

“Migrant is often being used in the British press, which is designed to differentiate between asylum seekers – those who are deemed to be genuine asylum seekers, and those moving for protection.

“Those in Calais would be broadly considered to be a migrant by the UN definition.

“And then again, economic migrant could mean anybody – a billionaire moving to the UK would be an economic migrant.

“Mixed migration is also something that needs to be considered. Rarely is it the case someone migrates for one sole reason, and that's an inherently human trait."

How the media decides what words to use

Media organisations have considered their choice of words in covering the ongoing migration crisis.

While British newspapers have variously employed the term ‘migrant’ to describe all of those leaving their home countries mirroring the UN description - some publications have clearly ‘loaded’ the term to infer other even illegal motives.

Last November, the Daily Express drew criticism by running the heading ‘Hidden Migrant Millions’ and has offended more recently with its coverage of those people in camps outside Calais.

News network Al Jazeera has acknowledged the issue in a blog, with its English language editor writing: “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."

The network now refers only to refugees, rather than the more ambiguous term ‘migrants’.

Although not everyone agreed with its decision.

And in the US, the Associated Press no longer uses the term ‘illegal immigrant’. Explaining the decision, it wrote: “The (AP) Stylebook no longer sanctions the term “illegal immigrant” or the use of “illegal” to describe a person.

“Instead, it tells users that “illegal” should describe only an action, such as living in or immigrating to a country illegally.”

And as the Migration Observatory has noted, "The use of the term ‘migrant’ in public debate is extremely loose and often conflates issues of immigration, race/ethnicity, and asylum."

But a clear break from this confusion may not be forthcoming any time soon.

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