Why the people crossing the Mediterranean aren’t ‘migrants’
More than 3,000 miles away from her home in Nigeria, a woman who lost her father in a terror attack sat slumped in her seat.
“My father went to work and never came home,” said Juliet, 24, in a room in Catania, Sicily. (I’ve withheld her last name at her request.) A school headmaster and a member of Nigeria’s center-right People’s Democratic Party, her father died in a June 2014 attack suspected to have been carried out by Boko Haram in the Wuse district of Abuja, Nigeria.
The loss shook the family to its roots. In the chaotic days that followed, as fear spread in Abuja, Juliet left the city in the direction of Agadez, in Niger. She lost track of her mother and 11-year-old sister, and has not spoken to either of them since the attack.
A four-month journey on foot and bus led Juliet through Niger and on to violence-plagued Libya, where she stayed for two months before embarking on a three-day-long boat trip across the Mediterranean to Sicily. She slept where she could among many others in transit — in the bush, in abandoned buildings — where people died and became pregnant through rape, she said. On the wooden boat to Sicily, there was no water or food. Like all the sub-Saharan Africans I met in Italy, Juliet stayed below deck in a nearly airless hold. (Middle Eastern refugees told me that among smugglers in Libya, sub-Saharan Africans are referred to as “slaves.”) Some women on board were pregnant and one man fainted, she said; “I don’t know if he survived.”
Like the dozens of refugees I spoke to in Sicily, Lampedusa, and Rome in the past few weeks, Juliet faces a long and complex process of applying for asylum. She is one of the 219,000 refugees and migrants who arrived in Europe by sea in 2014, according to UNHCR, and one of 170,000 who landed in Italy. In 2015, the majority of arrivals have so far come from four countries: Syria (31 percent), Eritrea (12 percent), Afghanistan (11 percent), and Somalia (6 percent), according to Melissa Fleming, UNHCR’s chief spokeswoman. These are all countries at war or with repressive dictatorships (Eritrea), so most of their citizens should be given refugee status in the EU, according to EU rules, said Fleming. Those from Nigeria, such as Juliet, will be decided on more of a case-by-case basis.
With the majority of people landing in Italy, Greece, and other EU countries so clearly leaving home because they have to, there’s a troubling misnomer at the heart of this ongoing human disaster: Why are we referring to this refugee emergency as the “Mediterranean migrant crisis”? The media uses this term almost exclusively — rarely choosing “refugee.” Yet “migrant” implies a choice: that people like Juliet could have stayed where they were rather than burden the EU with their presence. She has not come to Italy for reasons of “personal convenience,” a generally accepted definition for why migrants travel, according to the International Organization for Migration.
Many who are working to help the thousands of people on the move are frustrated by this terminology, which can turn public sentiment, and hence political action, against those in serious need.
Right-wing politicians in Europe have been playing into fears that refugees will spread disease and take the few jobs available in countries suffering from economic crises. The leader of Italy’s far-right party, the Northern League, has been propagating anxiety about the influx of refugees in his country: “There are four million Italians without work, and millions more living under the poverty level,” Matteo Salvini told the Associated Press in May. “I don’t think we can give housing to half the world.”
This kind of talk rankles Simon Adams, executive director of the Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect, which works to protect populations against mass atrocities. He calls the misclassification the basis of “a battle for the heart and soul of the 1951 UN Refugee Convention,” which defines the rights of refugees and states’ legal responsibility to protect them. Adams, whose own family fled Northern Ireland because of war, objects to pigeonholing the 60 million people (half of whom are children) in the world who’ve had no choice but to leave their home countries.
“This is not just a matter of semantics,” Adams said. “Desperate Syrians, Rohingya, or Libyans are being presented as greedy migrants who are willing to risk their children’s lives in sinking ships just because they want iPhones and welfare payments.”
Such language also degrades the protected passage of refugees, says Jan Egeland, secretary general of the Norwegian Refugee Council. By ending Operation Mare Nostrum, an Italian search and rescue naval operation that lasted for one year and was said to have saved thousands of lives, Italy caved to those who insisted that the mission merely encouraged “migrants” to continue to arrive like a pestilence since their safety was (relatively) guaranteed.
While Europe gave birth to the Refugee Convention as a result of the mass displacement caused by World War Two, the continent is precariously close to regressing to nationalism and selfishness in the face of human calamity — and causing the “slow death” of the Refugee Convention, as Egeland put it. Little has been said — or continues to be said — about the fact that less developed countries such as Lebanon, Jordan, and Turkey shoulder nine-tenths of all global displacements. The focus remains on “overwhelmed” — yet rich, by relative standards — Europe.
With the rise of xenophobia, the time of safe passage for refugees or asylum seekers to Europe appears to be over.
In a new, misguided attempt at stemming the influx of refugees, EU members are cracking down on traffickers and smugglers. Critics say the strategy will cost the lives of the refugees rather than stop smugglers.
Europe is unlikely to become “overwhelmed” by the refugees. With a population of 511 million people, absorbing 200,000 refugees a year will hardly break its back. In fact, refugees who gain asylum and other types of permission to stay can be of great benefit to the union’s struggling economies as they enter the workforce.
Women like Juliet deserve respect for their struggle to survive, and understanding why she came to Europe means recognizing the danger she faces back home. She is a refugee, not a migrant who can choose where she lives. And like 60 million other refugees in the world today, she needs a home, a job, and safe sanctuary. It is an essential test of our humanity to give it to her.