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Why the language we use to talk about refugees matters so much

A migrant climbs a security fence at a Eurotunnel terminal in Coquelles near Calais, northern France, on July 30. (Philippe Huguen/AFP)

In an interview with British news station ITV on Thursday, David Cameron told viewers that the French port of Calais was safe and secure, despite a "swarm" of migrants trying to gain access to Britain. Rival politicians soon rushed to criticize the British prime minister's language: Even Nigel Farage, leader of the anti-immigration UKIP party, jumped in to say he was not "seeking to use language like that" (though he has in the past).

Cameron clearly chose his words poorly. As Lisa Doyle, head of advocacy for the Refugee Council puts it, the use of the word swarm was "dehumanizing" – migrants are not insects. It was also badly timed, coming as France deployed riot police to Calais after a Sudanese man became the ninth person in less than two months to die while trying to enter the Channel Tunnel, an underground train line that runs from France to Britain.

Much of the outrage over the British leader's comments misses an important point, however: Cameron is far from alone when it comes to troubling use of language to describe the world's current migration crisis. Language is inherently political, and the language used to describe migrants and refugees is politicized. The way we talk about migrants in turn influences the way we deal with them, with sometimes worrying consequences.

Consider even the most basic elements of the language about migration. Writing in the Guardian earlier this year, Mawuna Remarque Koutonin asked why white people were often referred to as expatriates. "Top African professionals going to work in Europe are not considered expats," Koutonin wrote. "They are immigrants." When you add in the various words used to describe other varieties of immigration it all ends up getting very codified, as London-based Lebanese blogger Karl Sharro satirically pointed out on Twitter recently.

When considering the 60 million or so people currently displaced from their home around the world, certain words rankle experts more than others. "It makes no more sense to call someone an 'illegal migrant' than an 'illegal person,' " Human Rights Watch's Bill Frelick wrote last year. The repeated use of the word "boat people" to describe people using boats to migrate over the Mediterranean or across South East Asian waters presents similar issues.

"We don't call middle-class Europeans who take regular holidays abroad 'EasyJet people,' or the super-rich of Monaco 'yacht people,' " Daniel Trilling, editor of the New Humanist, told me. "It strikes me as a way, intentional or not, of avoiding discussing the reasons why refugees from Burma, for instance, take those boats and why other countries are reluctant to give them asylum."

How people are labelled has important implications. Whether people should be called economic migrants or asylum seekers matters a great deal in the country they arrive in, where it could affect their legal status as they try to stay in the country. It also matters in the countries where these people originated from. Eritrea, for example, has repeatedly denied that the thousands of people leaving the country are leaving because of political pressure, instead insisting that they have headed abroad in search of higher wages. Other countries make similar arguments: In May, Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina said that the migrants leaving her country were "fortune-seekers" and "mentally sick." The message behind such a message was clear: It's their fault, not ours.

There are worries that even "migrant," perhaps the broadest and most neutral term we have, could become politicized. Trilling pointed out that Katie Hopkins, a controversial British writer and public figure, likened migrants to "cockroaches" in a column published in the Sun newspaper in April. "As both government policy and political rhetoric casts these people as undesirables — a threat to security; a criminal element; a drain on resources — the word used to describe them takes on a new, negative meaning," Trilling says.

Words such as "swarm" or "invasion" can also have implications  just as negative when used in connection to refugees. James Hathaway, director of the Program in Refugee and Asylum at the University of Michigan Law School, says that these words are "clearly meant to instill fear." That's dangerous because the situation in Calais is already inflamed and full of fear: British tabloids are even calling for Cameron to send in the army, as if the migrants represented a foreign power preparing to invade.

Such a reaction is deeply misguided, said Alexander Betts, director of the Refugee Studies Center at Oxford University. "It's really important that we have a sense of perspective. There are around 20 million refugees in the world," Betts explains. "The few thousand people in Calais and trying to reach the U.K. mainly come from refugee-producing countries like Syria, Eritrea and Somalia — and we have obligations under international law to at least allow them to claim asylum."

Those living in the migrant camps near Calais, nicknamed "the jungle," seem to understand this well themselves. “It’s easier to leave us living like this if you say we are bad people, not human," Adil, a 24-year-old from Sudan, told the Guardian.

Can a change in language really change the way we think about migrants and refugees? It's hard to deny that interpretations can be subtle and subjective. However, this week we saw a great example of how humanizing victims can provoke a positive global reaction – and remarkably, this example came from the animal kingdom. All around the world, people mourned the death of Zimbabwe's Cecil the lion, while other equally important yet nameless animals died in obscurity. If we can humanize an animal, surely there's a way of humanizing humans.

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