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Mind your language

Think ‘migrant’ is an insult? ‘Refugee’ can be too

Al-Jazeera wants to banish stigma by banning the word. It will struggle

5 September 2015

9:00 AM

5 September 2015

9:00 AM

Al Jazeera, the Qatari broadcaster, is going to use refugee instead of migrant in its English output. ‘The umbrella term migrant is no longer fit for purpose when it comes to describing the horror unfolding in the Mediterranean,’ one of its editors explained. ‘It has evolved from its dictionary definitions into a tool that dehumanises and distances, a blunt pejorative.’

Doubts about terminology are not new. ‘Please don’t speak of those arriving in Australia from Britain as immigrants,’ wrote the Sydney Daily Mail in 1922. ‘Call them rather migrants, because to go from Britain to Australia is only to pass from one part of Great Britain to another.’ Perhaps.


It is not easy to know whether migrants enjoy more dignity when they pay, or when they’re paid for. In the 19th century, bounty immigrants to Australia had their passage paid by the colonial government, a bounty going to agents for skilled labour. In 1841, bounty of £4,956 was claimed by A.B. Smith & Co. of Sydney for safe arrival in the ship England of 345 immigrants. Their general conduct on the voyage had been ‘orderly and obedient’. At sea, seven were born and 18 died.

The dear old Australians managed to turn refugee into a pejorative term, in the diminutive form reffo. There are references in the 1950s to ‘Dagoes and Balts and reffos, the New Australians, who were taking over the country’. A century earlier, George Eliot had a character in Daniel Deronda talk of ‘a Pole, or a Czech, or something of that fermenting sort, in a state of political refugeeism’.

Any word can become bedraggled with use. Refugee was first applied to Protestants fleeing France. But in the 18th century the word was used as an equivalent of fugitives from justice. The Liberty of Whitefriars, wrote John Hawkesworth, once Samuel Johnson’s friend, ‘became filled with lawless refugees of all sorts’. In the American revolutionary war, Refugees, like Cow-Boys, was a name for pro-British guerrillas.

Since the 1920s economic refugee has sometimes been used in just the same way as economic migrant. By referring to refugees, Al Jazeera is not going to keep ahead.


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