On the day that the newly-appointed Clandestine Channel Threat Commander (apparently, we're now living out a Thunderbirds script) appears before the Home Affairs Committee, it's as good a time as any to talk about the fiery language of immigration.
The Banksy-funded rescue boat, Louise Michel, has fuelled even more debate around migrants and refugees. Both the artist and the boat's skipper have been criticised for its crowded conditions and the discussion around the need for such boats has been diminished. Think back too, to the voyeuristic live coverage of these crossings in early August. In a video explaining the reasons behind the boat's charter, Banksy said: "... because EU authorities deliberately ignore distress calls, from non-Europeans." Intriguing too, that many of us seem to have gotten distracted from the government's latest coronavirus failures ("OVER HERE! These brown people are trying to take your jobs!")
Maybe though, it goes deeper. If images of ‘different’ people seeking a new life or fleeing persecution (using frighteningly risky means, often via unscrupulous people-smugglers) stoke feelings of fear and resentment, is it because they’re tapping into a bias we didn’t know we had?
Last week, in a now-deleted video, the UK Home office subtly devalued legal representatives of asylum seekers by deliberately calling them “activist lawyers”. Boris Johnson recently used the term "illegal immigrants" to describe people who may have been asylum seekers and eventual refugees, while Donald Trump uses the term "illegal aliens" indiscriminately. Not only are these terms factually incorrect, they’re dehumanising. In 2013, Associated Press (AP) informed AP Stylebook users that the terms ‘illegal immigrant’ or 'illegal’ were no longer approved, while Al Jazeera switched from Mediterranean 'migrant crisis' to a 'refugee crisis'.
So, let’s break it right down. An ‘asylum seeker’ is someone seeking refuge, whose claim hasn’t yet been evaluated; not all receive refugee status. Every refugee was initially an asylum seeker, who believed returning home would lead to persecution (usually around armed conflicts, poverty, violence and dictatorial regimes). Seeking asylum is, categorically, not a crime. According to Home Office statistics, nearly three-quarters of asylum seeker claims in the UK show they’ve fled genuine persecution or danger. There’s also no law against people choosing where to seek asylum, and the reason some choose Britain is because they speak English (that’s what happens when one colonises a quarter of the world’s population...) or because they know people here (see above.) Before hand-wringing, it's worth remembering that Britain built its empire by docking boats without permission, and worse, with the intention to take what wasn't theirs. So, context and research are necessary.
It’s particularly interesting to note the language allocated to various groups. The terms ‘immigrant’ and 'economic migrant' can both bear bias. Is that how we refer to a British person who has moved to Singapore for work? No. We call them an ‘expatriate’ and wistfully discuss tax breaks. We also—particularly us lot in the travel industry—promote exploration through literature and media; does this then mean that emigrating should be reserved for those of certain racial or socio-economic groups? If a term is applied incorrectly—or worse, in an inflammatory way—enough times, it will catch on. And the debate can be framed in such a way that many people end up viewing immigration as something toxic. There’s no doubt that these terms shape public lexicon and when they come from the mouths or pens of people with clout, they worm their way into conversation and become legitimised.
In the end, it’s not just semantics. The danger is that polarising language polarises us, making people ‘for’ or ‘against’ something that’s far more nuanced and complex than yes or no—so, those words deserve to be both thoughtful and accurate. If we say the pen is mightier than the sword, spilling ink and not cleaning it up just ain’t on.
Shivani and Meera
P.S. If you missed the first issue of our newsletter, you can read it here.