Words do Matter in the Refugee Debate

By the end of 2017, there were 68.5 million displaced people worldwide. Out of those, 25.4 million, the highest ever, were refugees. Refugees have no choice on when, how and where they will go to escape from persecution, conflict, violence and human rights violations. They make perilous journeys sometimes with the help of unscrupulous people smugglers to reach safety. When they reach safe destinations, the trauma they experienced still shows on some of their faces. Canada has always been welcoming to refugees and it refugee determination system is admired the world over. It recently celebrated the 40th anniversary of its much acclaimed private sponsorship of refugees program.
 
The increasing number of displaced people has led to the increase in anti-refugee sentiments in many parts of the world. In Canada and the United States, immigration is currently a divisive hot button political issue. The situation is further complicated by the global ascendance of populism. Populists are “anti-establishment” individuals who claim to represent an “organic” people or nation. They define the nation in nativist terms and exclude refugees and other groups from their definition of the “people.” They prefer majority rule without due regard for minority rights. They believe refugees and other immigrants take away “people’s” jobs or that they are over dependent on “welfare.” The populists tend to spread propaganda that immigrants are a threat to their (white) identities and ways of life. In Europe, populist political parties are seeing an upsurge in their support due to their promise to clamp down on the rising numbers of immigrants once elected.
 
The language politicians, bureaucrats and journalists use regarding refugees is very important in influencing the public mindset. When government ministers call refugees names, they empower these extremist groups. Over the past decade, refugees have been called all sorts of names in Canada.  They have been labeled: “queue jumpers,” “asylum shoppers,” “illegal immigrants,” “economic migrants,” and “illegal border crossers.” Kathleen C. Riley observes that words have the “power to give voice or suppress, persuade or degrade, encourage or shame, escalate or resolve.” To mention “illegal” when describing refugees is to paint them with criminality. It sounds less criminal if they are called “irregular immigrants” or “irregular border crossers.” To call them “asylum shoppers” implies that they are economic migrants and not genuine refugees
 
So, words do matter in the refugee debate. We should all steer away from calling vulnerable refugees names that make them feel unwanted and unwelcome to Canada. Immigration is already turning out to be a divisive issue for the upcoming federal election campaigns. It is therefore imperative that we build a positive narrative pertaining to refugees and how they should welcomed to this country.

 

Photo by Siddhant Soni is licensed under CC0

About the author

  • Stephen is the Refugee Rights Policy Analyst at CPJ. He has worked as a civil servant, forced migration researcher and in the not for profit sector. Stephen has a Masters in Demography from the Australian National University; a BA in Social Work from Makerere University and a Diploma in Paralegal studies from Herzing College Toronto. He also has certificates in refugee and forced migration studies from Oxford and York universities. Stephen is very passionate about public justice and has written and published research papers pertaining to public justice issues including refugee and forced migration issues, governance and poverty reduction.

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