Why Al Jazeera will not say Mediterranean
By Barry Malone
August 22, 2015 "Information
Clearing House" - "Al
Imagine waking your children in the morning. Imagine
feeding and dressing them. Imagine pulling a little girl’s hair into
a ponytail, arguing with a little boy about which pair of shoes he
wants to wear.
Now imagine, as you are doing that, you know later today you will
strap their vulnerable bodies into enveloping life jackets and take
them with you in a rubber dinghy - through waters that have claimed
many who have done the same.
Think of the story you’d have to tell to reassure them. Think of
trying to make it fun. Consider the emotional strength needed to
smile at them and conceal your fear.
What would it feel like if that experience – your
frantic flight from war – was then diminished by a media that
crudely labelled you and your family "migrants"?
And imagine having little voice to counter a
description so commonly used by governments and journalists.
The umbrella term migrant is no longer fit for
purpose when it comes to describing the horror unfolding in the
Mediterranean. It has evolved from its dictionary definitions into a
tool that dehumanises and distances, a blunt pejorative.
It is not hundreds of people who drown when a boat goes down in the
Mediterranean, nor even hundreds of refugees. It is hundreds of
migrants. It is not a person – like you, filled with
thoughts and history and hopes – who is on the tracks delaying a
train. It is
a migrant. A nuisance.
It already feels like we are putting a value on
the word. Migrant deaths are not worth as much to the media as the
deaths of others - which means that their lives are not. Drowning
disasters drop further and further down news bulletins. We rarely
talk about the dead as individuals anymore. They are numbers.
When we in the media do this, when we apply reductive terminology to
people, we help to create an environment in which a British foreign
minister can refer to "marauding
migrants," and in which hate speech and thinly veiled racism can
We become the enablers of governments who have political reasons for
not calling those drowning in the Mediterranean what the majority of
them are: refugees.
We give weight to those who want only to see economic migrants.
The argument that most of those risking everything
to land on Europe’s shores are doing it for money is not supported
by the facts.
According to the UN, the
overwhelming majority of these people are escaping war. The largest
group are fleeing Syria, a country in which an estimated 220,000 to
more than 300,000 people have been killed during its appalling and
Many others come from Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Eritrea and Somalia
– all places from which people are commonly given asylum.
There is no "migrant" crisis in the Mediterranean. There is a very
large number of refugees fleeing unimaginable misery and danger and
a smaller number of people trying to escape the sort of poverty that
drives some to desperation.
So far this year,
nearly 340,000 people in these circumstances have crossed
Europe's borders. A large number, for sure, but still only 0.045
percent of Europe's total population of 740 million.
Contrast that with Turkey, which hosts 1.8 million refugees from
Syria alone. Lebanon, in which there are more than one million
Syrians. Even Iraq, struggling with a war of its own, is home to
more than 200,000 people who have fled its neighbour.
There are no easy answers and taking in refugees is a difficult
challenge for any country but, to find solutions, an honest
conversation is necessary.
And much of that conversation is shaped by the media.
For reasons of accuracy, the director of news at Al Jazeera English,
Salah Negm, has decided that we will no longer use the word migrant
in this context. We will instead, where appropriate, say refugee.
At this network, we try hard through our journalism to be the voice
of those people in our world who – for whatever reason – find
themselves without one.
Migrant is a word that strips suffering people of voice.
Substituting it for refugee is – in the smallest way – an attempt to
give some back.
is an online editor at Al Jazeera. Twitter