STOCKHOLM—Day after day, images of soaked and exhausted parents clutching their glassy-eyed children as they arrive on Europe’s shores make their way around the world.
That they are desperate and vulnerable after a harrowing journey across the Mediterranean on rickety rafts or packed ships is beyond doubt. But does that make them refugees from war or oppression, with a right to protection under international law, or are they better described as migrants, a term that usually refers to people simply seeking a better life in another country?
The scenes of human suffering, resilience, hope and rejection playing out in the Mediterranean have sparked an emotional and politically charged debate about what to call the hundreds of thousands of people from Africa and the Middle East who are entering Europe.
Al-Jazeera last week announced that it will stop using the word migrants in its news coverage, saying it doesn’t describe the “horror unfolding in the Mediterranean,” where almost 2,500 people have died this year after leaving Turkey or North Africa on overcrowded boats.
The word “has evolved from its dictionary definitions into a tool that dehumanizes and distances, a blunt pejorative,” Al-Jazeera online editor Barry Malone said. Going forward, Al-Jazeera will instead say refugee “where appropriate.”
The move was applauded by some human rights advocates worried about a hardening of anti-immigrant attitudes in Europe but criticized by others, who said it implies that only refugees, not migrants, are worthy of compassion.
Legally, there is a crucial distinction.
The U.N. refugee agency says it boils down to whether the person is being pushed or pulled: A migrant is someone who seeks better living conditions in another country; a refugee is someone who flees persecution, conflict or war.
Only members of the latter group are likely to be granted asylum in Europe.
By and large, European leaders refer to the Mediterranean situation as a migrant crisis, not a refugee crisis. British Prime Minister David Cameron in July talked about “a swarm of people coming across the Mediterranean seeking a better life, wanting to come to Britain because Britain has got jobs, it’s got a growing economy, it’s an incredible place to live.”
His choice of words was widely criticized by human rights advocates as offensive and misleading.
U.N. officials say a vast majority of the 137,000 people who crossed the Mediterranean into Europe in the first half of the year were fleeing war, conflict or persecution in countries including Syria, Afghanistan and Eritrea.
“It’s simply inaccurate to talk about Syrian migrants when there’s a war going on in Syria,” said William Spindler, a spokesman for the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees. “People who flee war deserve sympathy. So by not calling them refugees, you’re depriving them of the sympathy and understanding that the European public has for refugees.”
Still, European officials say using refugees as a blanket term isn’t technically accurate either. Many of the West Africans arriving in Italy, for example, may not be fleeing for their lives but instead be seeking better ones in European countries with much higher standards of living.
“I can sympathize with Al-Jazeera’s approach; I guess what they want to do is put a human face on the situation,” said Fredrik Beijer, legal director of Sweden’s migration authority. “But from our point of view, it’s simple: People who are on the move across the globe but who haven’t yet applied for asylum, to us they are migrants.”
Once a migrant applies for asylum, he or she becomes an asylum-seeker, Beijer said. The agency uses the word refugee only when the claim has been approved and a person receives refugee status.