On ‘Migrants’ And ‘Refugees’

We don’t base our decisions on whether to refer to those who are heading to Europe as “refugees” or “migrants” simply on what the U.N. or any governments say.

We also do not use words or phrases just because advocates on one side or another say we should.

There’s been discussion about whether the news media should only use the word “refugees” when referring to those who are in Europe or trying to get there. The word choice has legal ramifications and “refugees” is the word that human rights groups want to see used.

News outlets, including NPR, have leaned on “migrants” as the word that encompasses all those who are on the move.

Both words have a place in this story.

There is a migration under way. Large numbers of people are entering and crossing Europe. It is a migrant crisis. The people fit the dictionary definition of “migrants” because to migrate is to “move from one place to another.”

Obviously, given the makeup of the population, there’s a strong case to be made that most of the people are refugees. Here is the Webster’s New World College Dictionary definition: “A person who flees from home or country to seek refuge elsewhere, as in a time of war or of political or religious persecution.” Those fleeing conflict zones such as Syria and Afghanistan and places of persecution like Eritrea are almost surely refugees. But people fleeing poverty aren’t automatically refugees.

Our guidance:

– “Migrants” is a word that covers all those who are on the move, whether it’s because they’re fleeing a war zone or hoping for better lives somewhere new.

– “Refugee” and “refugees” can stand alone when there is evidence that a person or group has left home because of war or persecution or when we’re reporting about people from specific places such as Syria. For instance, it made sense to have our headline say “Number Of Refugees Found Dead In Austrian Truck Rises To 71” because Syrian travel documents were found with the bodies.

But do not assume that “refugees” is the word that works in all cases.

– Phrases such as “hundreds of refugees and other migrants” may be extremely useful.

– Also useful: Thinking of it as a migrant crisis “fueled by refugees from [country or countries].”

– Listen to how Steve Inskeep and Joanna Kakissis handled the words Friday on Morning Edition. Steve framed the conversation by talking about “why so many people risk their lives to move across Europe,” referring to them as “migrants.” Then as he and Joanna dug into the story, they folded in logical references to refugees.

– It will make sense in most cases to employ action words to describe who we’re reporting about —  ”families fleeing the war in Syria,” for instance.

– We turn to the dictionary for help, not the legal definitions. But everyone reporting this story should be familiar with the legalese because it may be necessary to explain it to listeners/readers.

(Memmos; Aug. 28, 2015)

August 28, 2015

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