Are they refugees or migrants? Why what we call the people fleeing Syria matters

Before a picture of his death went viral this week, was just another “migrant” — the bland word that has come to signify the millions fleeing chaos in . The term is certainly preferable to “cockroaches” and “feral humans,” as one London tabloid writer described the same group of desperate people trying to make it into Europe. But even seemingly innocuous official terms (think of the sneering description of Second World War “DPs,” or Displaced Persons) are rarely neutral.


Greek police have a unit whose name is commonly translated as “aliens and border protection branch.” Canadian press have occasionally used that term. It is more common, though, in the United States, where in right-wing circles it’s become code for people who have come to the country from Latin America, especially Mexico. Apart from proposing the construction of a wall along the entire U.S.-Mexico border, Donald Trump has called for the “mandatory return of all criminal aliens.” Such language eerily echoes Adolf Hitler’s frequent references to Jews: “Our national stock has been much adulterated,” he wrote in Mein Kampf, “by the mixture of alien elements.”


The world asylum refers to a sanctuary, a site of protection for anyone who has fallen foul of the law. Yet the residents of Syria and other war-shattered countries who are now fleeing to Europe are not just in search of protection from one side or another in a murderous, lawless conflict; they are hoping to begin a new life.


The first definition of migrant in any English dictionary dates back to 1623, and reads simply: “to flit here and there.” In the context of today’s news, the word suggests a person who freely decides to move, often for economic reasons. An immigrant has chosen to settle in a new country; an emigrant has chosen to leave a homeland behind. Immigration is a formal process; and many other nations have immigration policies to which entire departments are dedicated. Is that the best way to think of the fatal journey in a small, overcrowded boat that Alan Kurdi and his family endured?


For most of the Syrians we are hearing about, I would argue, the right term is “refugee.” The origins of that word also belong to the 17th century, when it referred to Protestants who fled religious oppression in a triumphantly Roman Catholic France. Over time the word’s meaning extended to include all those who were escaping war, persecution, or intolerable conditions at home. Kurdi’s family were determined to get away from a civil war that has all but destroyed Syria. They were not making a rational economic decision or a calm political choice. Just like the Vietnamese boat people in the late 1970s, they were fighting for their lives.

Special to the Montreal Gazette

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