Language is never neutral—but we have to tryby Jessica Abrahams / January 29, 2016 / Leave a comment
Read more: The age of immigration
Read more: Refugee crisis—compassion is not enough
Around a million migrants are believed to have crossed into Europe during 2015 without the correct documents, three or four times as many as the year before. Those migrants come from various backgrounds and have various reasons for moving, but many were fleeing conflict and violence, with about half arriving from Syria.
The west has struggled to find the right words to talk about this. The row over David Cameron’s description of those waiting in Calais as “a bunch of migrants” is the latest example, but the problem is pervasive. Fingers are often pointed at the media for not thinking sufficiently hard about the language we use. This is something of which we are all guilty, from politicians in Westminster to everyday conversations among friends, and it all plays a role in how the debate develops. But those with loud voices, including the media, do have more influence over which words are used and how.
One of the earliest debates was about whether news reports should refer to the “crisis” arriving on Europe’s shores as one of “migrants” or “refugees.” The word migrant was favoured to begin with, being broader in its application, but many writers and editors later turned to the word refugee as a way of recognising the horrors that many of these families were fleeing. The media’s approach to this is still mixed, and some publications are inconsistent within their own coverage. As I have written previously, there has been much less debate about the choice of the word “crisis,” although this also needs attention. Part of the problem is that once a word such as this has entered our vocabulary we replicate it without thinking, eventually forgetting that it’s a choice at all and that there are alternative ways to describe the situation.
Interestingly, the earliest descriptions of this as a “crisis” that I can find come from US publications—the Wall Street Journal in May 2012, followed by the first use I have seen of the phrase “migrant…