By referring to those reaching Europe’s shores as migrants, the European Union’s leaders are trying to mislead the public about the real nature of the crisis.
Europe is witnessing probably the greatest movement of people since the Second World War. Over the last several months, hundreds of thousands of men, women and children from Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, Eritrea and Sub-Saharan Africa have been risking their lives each day in a bid to reach Europe. Thousands have perished in the attempt. The harrowing image of the body of three-year-old Aylan Kurdi washed ashore on the Turkish coastline has become the defining image of the humanitarian crisis that is presently unfolding. The crisis is only expected to worsen, with the United Nations forecasting that over 3,000 people a day will try to reach Western Europe alone in the next few months. The number of fatalities is also expected to rise. The increasing public attention being given to the situation in Europe has thrown into sharp focus the policies of several prominent European governments towards such displaced persons.
Consequence of terminology
As the crisis in the Mediterranean has unfolded, a number of European politicians and media houses have chosen to consistently refer it as a ‘migrant’ crisis. The majority of the men, women and children trying to reach European shores have been portrayed as economic migrants in search of a better life. In a bid to incite nationalistic tendencies, the displaced persons have been compared to marauders posing a threat to the standard of living and social structure of a privileged European society. The choice in terminology and the rhetoric that follows suit is not wholly without consequence, both legal and otherwise.
In law, the distinction between a refugee and a migrant is of great significance. First and foremost, refugees enjoy a distinct and unique standard of protection under international law. A refugee has been defined under the 1951 Refugee Convention of the UNHCR and its 1967 Protocol as any person who, “owing to a well founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside of the country of his nationality and is unable, or is owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself the protection of that country”. With the evolution of international refugee law, this definition of convention refugees has been expanded to cover persons who have fled their countries due to armed conflicts, internal turmoil and situations involving gross and systematic violation of human rights. Such persons are typically referred to as humanitarian refugees. Refugees enjoy certain special protections under law, such as safety from deportation to the country where they face persecution; protection of basic human rights without racial or religious discrimination, or of national origin; access to fair and efficient asylum procedures; provision of administrative assistance, and
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