Mi­grants: The ter­mi­nol­ogy mat­ters

Lesotho Times - - Opinion -

THE re­cent de­ci­sion by Al Jazeera English to use the word “refugees” in­stead of “mi­grants” to de­scribe the thou­sands of peo­ple who risk their lives to make dan­ger­ous jour­neys to reach se­cure ter­ri­to­ries is an his­tor­i­cal act - maybe even a de­layed one.

The use of ter­mi­nol­ogy is of crit­i­cal im­por­tance in shap­ing our per­cep­tions, at­ti­tudes and be­hav­iours. Call­ing those who flee from per­se­cu­tion, in­hu­mane treat­ment, tor­ture, vi­o­lence and war as “mi­grants” may have ir­repara­ble con­se­quences on gov­ern­ment poli­cies and the lives of thou­sands of ac­tual refugees.

In or­der to un­der­stand the pos­si­ble po­lit­i­cal and hu­man­i­tar­ian con­se­quences of us­ing in­ac­cu­rate ter­mi­nol­ogy, we need to bear in mind the har­row­ing ex­pe­ri­ence of the thou­sands of in­di­vid­u­als who flee dan­ger zones and how these ex­pe­ri­ences form the ba­sis of in­ter­na­tion­ally ac­cepted norms.

In­ter­na­tional con­ven­tions The def­i­ni­tion of “refugee” has been clearly de­ter­mined by both the in­ter­na­tional refugee law and in­ter­na­tional hu­man rights laws. Refugees are per­sons forced to leave their homes and coun­tries be­cause their lives and free­doms are in dan­ger.

The 1951 Geneva Con­ven­tion Re­lat­ing to the Sta­tus of Refugees de­scribes a refugee as any per­son “ow­ing to 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 or, ow­ing to such fear, is un­will­ing to avail him­self of the pro­tec­tion of that coun­try”.

In the course of the de­vel­op­ment of the in­ter­na­tional refugee law, this def­i­ni­tion has been broad­ened to cover per­sons who are forced to leave their coun­tries be­cause of wide­spread vi­o­lence, war, civil war and for­eign oc­cu­pa­tion that put their lives at risk in their coun­tries.

In­ter­na­tional refugee law also cre­ates both sta­tus and rights-based in­stru­ments and is un­der­pinned by a num­ber of fun­da­men­tal prin­ci­ples, most no­tably non-dis­crim­i­na­tion, non-pe­nal­i­sa­tion and non-re­foule­ment.

Non-re­foule­ment is a key facet of in­ter­na­tional refugee law, which con­cerns the pro­tec­tion of refugees from be­ing re­turned or ex­pelled to places where their lives or free­doms could be threat­ened.

The rea­son for leav­ing one’s coun­try is con­sid­ered as the main fac­tor in dis­tin­guish­ing refugees from mi­grants. Refugees are per­sons who are forced to leave their coun­tries for the rea­sons men­tioned above.

From the per­spec­tive of the states, it is an eth­i­cal and le­gal obli­ga­tion to keep their borders open to the refugees who are flee­ing from se­ri­ous vi­o­la­tions of hu­man rights or war.

In­ter­na­tional mi­gra­tion, on the other hand, is an act by in­di­vid­u­als who de­cide to vol­un­tar­ily leave their coun­tries for var­i­ous rea­sons.

Since the mid-1970s, the chan­nels for reg­u­lar mi­gra­tion to more de­vel­oped coun­tries have been re­stricted, mainly due to the global eco­nomic crises and var­i­ous po­lit­i­cal rea­sons.

This has forced many peo­ple, es­pe­cially in lesser de­vel­oped coun­tries, who de­cide to mi­grate to other coun­tries in search of a bet­ter life to look for al­ter­na­tive means of en­try. State re­sponse to hard­ships In many cases, to es­cape from ex­treme poverty and lack of hope for a dig­ni­fied life in the fu­ture, mi­grants do not have many al­ter­na­tives. Many have to travel ir­reg­u­larly and with­out proper doc­u­ments.

Nev­er­the­less, de­vel­oped coun­tries’ re­sponse to this flow of mi­grants was to im­pose strict en­try re­stric­tions and more se­cu­rity mea­sures to stop ir­reg­u­lar en­tries into their ter­ri­to­ries.

These re­stric­tions have been detri­men­tal for refugees who have the right to seek asy­lum in other coun­tries un­der Ar­ti­cle 14 of the Uni­ver­sal Dec­la­ra­tion of Hu­man Rights.

hese coun­tries have the re­spon­si­bil­ity to re­spect the hu­man rights of both refugees and mi­grants.

Whether they en­ter with proper doc­u­ments or not, mi­grants are - above all - hu­man be­ings. How­ever, from the per­spec­tive of the in­ter­na­tional refugee law, states have obli­ga­tions to­wards peo­ple flee­ing from per­se­cu­tion or vi­o­lence.

It is the duty of the states to pro­tect refugees by not send­ing them back to the coun­tries where their lives are at risk.

They also have the re­spon­si­bil­ity to pro­vide durable so­lu­tions for refugees.

Refugees, who of­ten leave ev­ery­thing be­hind when flee­ing their homes, need le­gal sta­tus and ac­cess to the ba­sic rights and so­cial and eco­nomic ser­vices to build new, dig­ni­fied lives in their new coun­try.

Un­for­tu­nately, some coun­tries in­creas­ingly try to avoid ful­fill­ing their re­spon­si­bil­i­ties to­wards refugees by deny­ing their very sta­tus as refugees.

The use of ter­mi­nol­ogy is usu­ally an in­stru­ment in this prac­tise.

By cre­at­ing new cat­e­gories for refugees like “mi­grants”, “illegal mi­grants”, “per­sons un­der tem­po­rary pro­tec­tion”, these coun­tries hope to shirk their re­spon­si­bil­i­ties to­wards refugees.

The way for­ward This is why the de­ci­sion by Al Jazeera English is a his­tor­i­cal step in con­form­ity with the in­ter­na­tional refugee norms to cre­ate the right per­cep­tions in host coun­tries.

Some media, es­pe­cially in EU coun­tries, are ex­tremely hos­tile to­wards refugees and ir­reg­u­lar mi­grants.

They de­lib­er­ately try to crim­i­nalise both groups. They re­fer to them with one word: illegal mi­grants.

Such a dis­crim­i­na­tory media re­sponse to the largest hu­man­i­tar­ian cri­sis of our era con­structs neg­a­tive public at­ti­tudes to­wards the thou­sands of peo­ple des­per­ately in need of in­ter­na­tional pro­tec­tion.

Such neg­a­tive at­ti­tudes lead to more re­stric­tive poli­cies by po­lit­i­cal par­ties and gov­ern­ments. The con­se­quence is the dou­ble vic­tim­i­sa­tion of refugees.

lmetin Cora­batir is the pres­i­dent of Ankara-based Re­search Cen­tre on Asy­lum and Mi­gra­tion. The views ex­pressed in this ar­ti­cle are the au­thor’s own and do not nec­es­sar­ily re­flect the Le­sotho Times’ ed­i­to­rial pol­icy.

States have an eth­i­cal and le­gal obli­ga­tion to keep their borders open to refugees flee­ing from war.

Metin Cora­batir

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