The “R” Word
In the past few days we’ve seen a steady flow of images of the refugee crisis in Europe. These images show boats carrying refugees, refugees waiting in line to get on a train, walking down the side of a highway or railroad tracks, and running from authorities. These are not new images; we’ve seen refugees make the journey into Europe before, which they have been doing for years, although at a lower rate than now. What is new are the images of Germans welcoming the refugees. This isn’t specific to Germany; there are movements to welcome them around major cities of Europe. For example, in Denmark there has been a mobilization of citizens to the Danish-German border to help the refugees on their way to Sweden. There seems to be an overall sentiment of needing to help the refugees in this time of crisis. Although it’s not the majority of the population, this portion is vocal and has received a lot of media attention.
The United States has had a steady flow of immigrants the past few years but last year there was an increase of immigrants who were unaccompanied minors. Why didn’t the US public react the same way as Europeans have? In 2014, Pew Research Center assessed that there were 46,932 unaccompanied minors who were apprehended at the border. That’s a 158% increase from the number of unaccompanied minors entering the US in 2010. Some people called for the immediate deportation of the underage immigrants, but many people called for a humane approach. When this influx of unaccompanied minors occurred, we didn’t see a mobilization of American citizens to the border. There was no movement similar to “Refugees Welcome.” The images of crowded detention centers with children shocked the public, but it didn’t motivate people to act.
Are they immigrants or are the refugees?
One huge distinction between the current European public’s reaction and the American public reaction is their choice of words. It’s very clear that Europe considers this increase in migration to be a refugee crisis. US media, however, rarely uses the word “refugee.” The words most commonly used are “illegal immigrant” or “unaccompanied minor” which don’t elicit the same kind of empathy as the word refugee does. Would it be appropriate to use the term refugee in the context of the Central American minors?
According to the Immigration and Nationality Act, a refugee is:
Any person who is outside any country of such person’s nationality or, in the case of a person having no nationality, is outside any country in which such person last habitually resided, and who is unable or unwilling to return to, and is unable or unwilling to avail himself or herself of the protection of, that country because of persecution or a well-founded fear of persecution on account of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion…
Some key points to the term “refugee” are the ideas of displacement and of persecution. These unaccompanied minors fit this term because they have been displaced and are no longer residing in the country of their nationality. Also, many have chosen to leave their country because of persecution from gangs. They fear being in their home country because they could be either victims of gang violence or pressured into joining a gang. They are not the kind of immigrants most of the US population imagines when they think of immigration. The usual immigrant narrative is that an immigrant chooses to immigrate to the US in search of a job or opportunities. These children are not doing that; they are seeking safety. In this case they should be considered refugees.
Looking back to the refugee crisis in Europe, let’s take a look at two newspapers from the same day, September 10, 2015.
This Danish newspaper’s first line says “flygtningestrømmen over den danske graense” which translates to “The flow of refugees across the Danish border.” The term “refugee” is openly used to describe the people mostly coming from Syria.
This American newspaper from the same day doesn’t mention the word “refugee” and instead uses the term “migrant”, even though Danish newspapers are openly using the term.
(As an aside, a migrant isn’t the same as an immigrant, the word of choice in the US. With the term migrant, there is no sense of where the person will settle down, whereas the term immigrant implies that they will settle down in a host country or has already done so.)
So why is the US media and public choosing to not use the term “refugee?” A person fleeing violence to find safety should be labeled accordingly. Are Americans so cold hearted that they use these terms to distance themselves from people in need? Or perhaps it’s just a lack of understanding on the situation.
Whether we call these displaced persons “refugees”, “immigrants”, or “migrants” won’t change their plight, but choosing the right term to identify them will change how we react to them.