The television news network Al Jazeera announced Thursday that its writers and anchors would no longer use the word "migrants" to refer to the people who have been arriving by the thousands on Greek shores throughout the summer. Given that many if not most of the people coming ashore via rubber dinghies from Turkey or North Africa are fleeing violence in their home countries, Al Jazeera said its journalists would instead use the word "refugees," likely causing many readers to wonder: What is the difference between a migrant and a refugee?
"Migrant" is an umbrella term with a definition that has been hotly debated. Historically, migrants were often people who traveled around a country or region, helping out on different farms and finding seasonal work. No legal definition exists for a migrant, and so the term does not carry any legal rights or liberties, according to the Oxford University Migration Observatory in England.
"What would it feel like if that experience – your frantic flight from war – was then diminished by a media that crudely labeled you and your family 'migrants'?" asked Al Jazeera editor Barry Malone in his article explaining the media outlet's choice of terminology. Malone went on to describe how the word "migrant" might lead readers to diminish such people's worth or to think less of their deaths, while the word "refugee" carried a more respectful connotation.
In fact, "refugee" was clearly defined and spelled out by the United Nations in 1951. The convention, established after World War II, defines a refugee as "a person who is outside his or her country of nationality or habitual residence; has a well-founded fear of being persecuted because of his or her race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion."
— AJE News (@AJENews) August 21, 2015
Middle Easterners and North Africans, many of them escaping sectarian and ethnic violence in places like Sudan and Syria, have been part of an influx of people trying to illegally enter the European Union as a means to make a better life for themselves. Around 160,000 people have migrated to Greece since just January.
New arrivals often come first to Greece or the Balkan nations because of their relative proximity to the war-torn regions of the Middle East, though the majority of them want to move on to northern European countries where the economy is stronger. The group has collectively been referred to most often as "migrants," though some news organizations and politicians have called them "refugees" or "illegal immigrants."
Aid workers on the ground in Greece have said the vast majority of people arriving to Greece are bona fide refugees. In order to be considered a refugee in Europe and be allowed the privileges of freedom of movement and residence, refugee status must be applied for, and the process is often very long and challenging given the sheer number of people.