A blog published on Al Jazeera's English language website last Thursday has caused something of a media storm. With 60,000 shares on Facebook and 9,000 on Twitter, Barry Malone's piece on why Al Jazeera is no longer using the word 'migrant' to refer to the people crossing the Mediterranean has struck a chord. Global interest in the article is growing, not least because of a supportive mention in The Independent's online i100, up-voted 66 times and advocating that 'we' should follow Al Jazeera's example.
What does Malone argue?
Malone argues that the word 'migrant' has 'evolved from its dictionary definitions into a tool that dehumanises and distances, a blunt pejorative'. He is right.
He argues that 'migrant deaths are not worth as much to the media as the deaths of others'. Again, sadly, he is right.
He argues that 'when we in the media do this, when we apply reductive terminology to people, we help to create an environment in which a British foreign minister can refer to "marauding migrants," and in which hate speech and thinly veiled racism can fester.' Once again, a valid point.
Yet he concludes, 'Migrant is a word that strips suffering people of voice. Substituting it for refugee is - in the smallest way - an attempt to give some back.' This is where he gets it wrong.
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.
Seeming to take a noble stand in support of the vulnerable, Malone instead excludes migrants from the liberal side of the debate, leaving them at the mercy of right-wing hostility and reinforcing the dichotomy of 'good refugee' and 'bad migrant' that he claims to despise.
This is unwelcome for two reasons. Firstly, the distinction between a migrant and a refugee is rarely as clear-cut as we (and Malone) would like. The majority of people arriving in Greece come from a war-torn, poverty stricken or intensely unstable country where life is desperate and the future bleak. Even if an individual is not fleeing persecution and cannot therefore be called a refugee, their situation is often equally traumatic. Yet Al Jazeera is denying these people a voice, just as it claims to be doing the opposite.
Secondly, a migrant is defined as 'a person who moves from one place to another in order to find work or better living conditions'. Surely this is a person with whom we could all empathise, or at least identify? We all aspire to better lives, for ourselves and for our children, whether this means moving house, changing towns or crossing borders. Those who are forced to change continents, leave or uproot their families and face a treacherous journey in that search are deserving of our respect, even our compassion. But again, Malone, along with much of the British media, denies them this.
We should reclaim the word 'migrant'
Al Jazeera's decision, although stemming from a laudable desire to challenge dehumanizing rhetoric, is naïve and alarming. It reflects a refusal to acknowledge the complex make-up of the boatloads arriving in Europe and a failure to effectively counter anti-migrant rhetoric.
Instead of rejecting 'migrant', we should reclaim it from those who have worked to turn in it into a term of abuse. The term migrant ought to be accepted as a neutral descriptor which covers the situation of everyone who migrates, whether in exercise of a positive right as a citizen through to the desperate search for a safe haven. When we need to be more specific, 'refugee' and 'asylum' provide more of the detail of the phenomenon that must be understood.
In a world of globalized politics and economics an objective terminology is needed that gets us beyond the demonology of the 'good' and the 'bad' frontier crosser, and helps us to understand just how interconnected are the realities of people movement in all the circumstances in which it occurs.