Why the people crossing the Mediterranean aren’t ‘migrants’

July 2, 2015
A staff member puts an identification number on a rescued migrant's hand as she disembarks at the Pozzallo harbour, Italy

A staff member puts an identification number on a rescued woman’s hand as she disembarks at the Pozzallo harbour, Italy, June 9, 2015. REUTERS/Antonio Parrinello

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.






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you have written an article about semantics. they will keep coming as long as conditions persist in areas they left. so what makes you think europe can easily absorb these people?

Posted by harrykrishna | Report as abusive

>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.

Without a scheme to redistribute them between the various European countries the “511 million people” mean really little.

Posted by hs7 | Report as abusive


Posted by notfooled2 | Report as abusive

If asylum and safety was their sole concern then there are plenty of countries in Africa to go to. Syrians have the Middle East. These people are mainly economic migrants with some genuine asylum speakers mixed in with them. Look at the boat people – mainly young men. The problem is sorting out those who are genuine from the others that simply seak a better lifestyle. Europe can’t take everyone from the Middle East and Africa who would like a better income. Alternatives are needed.

Posted by paulos | Report as abusive

Refugees? migrants? How about criminals and cowards. Criminals for knowingly entering another country illegally. Cowards for running rather that fighting for their country. These people are owed nothing and there is no justification to allow any of them to immigrate over those who follow the legal channels.

Posted by smith_9000 | Report as abusive

Wrong! The real crisis is overpopulation. The nations of the world need to deal with their own people. Where are the 1 billion people added to the population going to go and be feed 20 years from now? Europe? USA? Stop immigration and end the population crisis.

Posted by JacksonKidd | Report as abusive

One can wonder why the United Nations, especially the UNHCR, is not quoted as strongly against the “people smuggling” trade. There are other millions of displaced people in their camps in places like Turkey, who are more clearly refugees to suffer such poor conditions for an indefinite term, and are more easily managed under various nations quotas.
The money spent on “combating” and rescuing customers of the people smugglers, who then need to be “processed” would go a long way in the UNHCR, and would not incite racist/political reactions in Europe.
It is even worse than the Mediterranean in the Andaman Sea and Indian Ocean – lots of sharks that start eating families clinging to wreckage when the cheap old fishing boat or ferry sinks. Not an industry to be promoted and expanded.

Posted by Neurochuck | Report as abusive

Simon Adams is correct in suggesting that 219 000 asylum seekers could be absorbed (in economic terms) into Europe, with a population of 511 million residents. In the 2014 calendar year Australia has begun to process and potentially settle 20 711 asylum seekers (majority boat arrivals) at a cost of AU$ 3.45 billion (GDP AU$1560 billion with a population of 22 million). Potentially this figure may have been closer to 30 000 boat arrivals if not for Australia’s highly contentious boat turn-back policy and notorious practice of indefinite mandatory detention (IMD) in offshore detention centres. IMD has been heavily criticised by the UNHCR for causing further serious damage to vulnerable people who have suffered trauma persecution. Economic figures stack up, however far greater challenges have surfaced regarding cultures from Africa and the Middle East meshing with our Western way of life. Who makes the decisions on what acceptable cultural behaviours are allowed to continue in an adopted land, and what practices are to be condemned. The 219 000 boat arrivals in Europe in 2014 were comprised of citizens of Syria 31%, Eritrea 12%, Afghanistan 11% and Somalia 6%. The prevalence of Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) in Somalia accounts for 98% of women and young girls; Mali and Eritrea 89%; Sudan and Sierra Leone 88%. These cultural norms reflect deep-rooted inequality between sexes, extreme form of discrimination (nearly always carried out on minors) and is a degrading violation of the rights of children. Many males in countries of the war-torn Middle East (if not all) are completely comfortable in taking Minors for their child-bride, which is a violation of a person’s rights to health, security and physical integrity, and like FGM denies one’s rights to be free from torture and cruel, inhumane or degrading treatment. Democracies of the West condemn such ancient, barbaric practices. However, if these barbaric norms are integral, and unassailable tenants of African and Middle Eastern cultures, can the cultures integrate successfully with more attractive destination countries. Who decides what cultural extremes are erased to meet acceptable ways of living in a ‘modern’ world. Recent studies have revealed that 60% of all Muslims have the potential to be Jihadists by way of their fundamentalist voting patterns. Best case scenarios state that there are a minimum of 180 million potential jihadists worldwide (maximum 225 million). There are many complex cultural perceptions to be addressed flowing from the current wave of displaced souls in transit.

Posted by GrajaganBrave | Report as abusive

The problem is Islam. They go crazy and kill people, and chase them into the sea. You can not have a peaceful world with a billion muslims. They eat their own.

Posted by Solidar | Report as abusive

as soon as these people are picked up by officials, without proper papers, the authorities should deport them back to their country of origin. The problems are in the original country and those governments need to face those problems that make people leave i.e. overpopulation, unemployment, poverty, violence. The governments of the original countries are pleased to see people of poverty leave…less headaches for them…so send them back.

Posted by kobrigama | Report as abusive