By Dr Melissa Phillips
As the number of people arriving by boat to Europe continues to rise, so does the rhetoric about an influx of ‘illegal migrants’, ‘boat migrants’ , ‘migrant boats’ and just plain ‘illegals’. Academics have long written about the impact of press reporting on asylum issues and the effect of labelling on refugees and asylum seekers.(1) Their findings show the way predominantly negative labels are repeated and entrenched having a detrimental consequence for how we understand asylum issues and perceive asylum seekers. Perhaps the most pernicious of these labels has been ‘illegal’ which human rights groups, refugee advocates and media organisations have been campaigning against as inaccurate and legally incorrect.(2)
More recently commentators have been at pains to distinguish between groups of migrants and refugees arriving in Europe by boat, noting that there are technical legal arguments to guide terminology as well as familiar tropes that we encounter through the use of one term or another. As Jesper Bjarnesen notes, refugees and labour migrants are intertwined.(3) This is why terms such as ‘mixed migration’ have become one way to bridge the sometimes blurry distinction between people who leave their homes due to political persecution and those who suffer economic hardship, acknowledging that the two can be related in situations of displacement and refugee outflows.
Yet mixed migration still ties us to the word ‘migration’ which brings along with it polarising attitudes towards migration and competition over jobs. It also evokes less sympathy than refugee or asylum seeker, with migrants having fewer advocacy bodies and organisations fighting for their interests as compared to refugees.
So what do the arrival figures along the Central Mediterranean route into Europe tell us? Frontex’s FRAN quarterly for Q4, 2013 explained that “the majority of African irregular migrants detected along the Central Mediterranean route were Eritreans”. The classification of Eritreans as ‘irregular migrants’ would seem inaccurate given that around 90% of Eritrean asylum seekers successfully claimed asylum in industrialised countries in recent years.(4) Eritrea is currently the subject of a United Nations Human Rights Council Commission of Inquiry and is known to be one of the poorest and most repressive countries in the world. The next largest group of arrivals originated from Syria and Frontex acknowledges that this group of people is escaping armed conflict in their country. However the Frontex report then goes on to refer to ‘migrant interviews’, once again conflating the terms migrant and refugee and using them interchangeably.
Beyond technical distinctions over terms and language there is a lack of personalisation of the human side of asylum seekers, refugees and migrants seeking to enter Europe by sea. It can be very difficult to find individual stories behind the frenzied media headlines claiming thousands more people are potentially on their way to Europe by boat mainly departing from Libya. It is only through individual stories and nuanced accounts of why people leave their homes and their mixed motivations for departing, that we will better understand the factors driving mobility along this route which in turn can shape policy solutions. The upcoming United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees’ 2014 Protection Dialogue focuses on Protection at Sea and calls for responses that are sensitive to the specific needs of individuals and groups.(5) Assuming that all people have the same reason for leaving their homes and getting onto boats, that all people rescued at sea are migrants and that there is a one size fits all policy response misrecognises the heterogeneity of this group. Such heterogeneity includes country of origin, gender, age and family make up including pre-existing links to Europe.
It is time we stopped talking solely about migrants and start to use more technically accurate and relevant labels. Until then we cannot readily respond to a phenomenon that is one of the most pressing and challenging of our times – assisting people in need of protection at sea.
Dr Melissa Phillips is an Honorary Fellow at the University of Melbourne.
(1) See for example, Pickering, S. (2000). “The hard press of asylum.” Forced Migration Review 8: 32-33 and Zetter, R. (1991). “Labelling Refugees: Forming and Transforming a Bureaucratic Identity.” Journal of Refugee Studies 4(1): 39-62.
(2) For more on this see recent commentary by Human Rights Watch: http://www.hrw.org/news/2014/06/24/dispatches-why-we-should-outlaw-illegal and Fact Sheets produced by the Refugee Council of Australia: http://www.refugeecouncil.org.au/f/myth-long.php as well as media outlets: http://www.sbs.com.au/goback/about/factsheets/4/are-asylum-seekers-who-arrive-by-boat-illegal-immigrants and http://www.abc.net.au/news/2014-01-24/tony-abbott-incorrect-on-asylum-seekers-breaking-australian-law/5214802
(3) Bjarnesen, Jesper (2014) ‘Refugees or migrants?’, Nordic Africa Institute, http://www.nai.uu.se/news/articles/2014/06/27/104657 .
(4) Figure cited in Regional Mixed Migration Secretariat (2014), ‘Going West: contemporary mixed migration trends from the Horn of Africa to Libya & Europe.’
(5) See http://www.unhcr.org/pages/5357caed6.html .