Words are powerful. As powerful as they were 70 years ago. And this is the era of Facebook quotes and Twitter trends and Whatsapp groups. Words are not only powerful, they travel quicker than ever before.
And two words that have been subtly brandished about over the last few months are refugee and migrant.
Let’s clear this up once and for all with the help of the Oxford Dictionary:
A refugee is “a person who has been forced to leave their country in order to escape war, persecution, or natural disaster”
A migrant is “a person who moves from one place to another in order to find work or better living conditions”
How could any journalist mix those two up? Meanings matter. These two words shape how we feel about these people. Refugees are people who we have a responsibility to help because they’ve had no option but to flee. A migrant is someone who could have stayed where they were, who has come over to us because things weren’t as nice where they were before, who wanted a pay rise, didn’t like their last job or the weather.
For example – being from England and living in Austria, I’m technically a migrant. Though most people with a Western European background would never be given that label. Far too negative. We get to be expats.
I don’t believe that journalists choose words by chance. I think the media are doing their own bit of manipulating; giving into pressure from someone, they brandish the word migrant about, shaping how we think about the hundreds of thousands of people coming in our direction, giving our governments an excuse not to act.
I just hope us Europeans will never have to flee in our thousands.
That’s already happened.
And these two words aren’t the only ones running around causing trouble.
Words are being used to spread rumours. That refugees are destroying blankets and coats and trains. That they are walking into supermarkets and stealing food. Information got from a friend of a friend of a colleague at work is repeated with 100% confidence to the next person who will pass it on to the next. The stories grow legs and walk, becoming more embellished as the days pass.
Public attitude shapes political decisions – if the public attitude is one of fear, the policies reflect that.
I think we all have a responsibility to stay away from this fear-and-rumour-mongering machine. How can we assume that things are true when we have heard them fourth hand? We can’t risk the consequences of being wrong. There are lives at stake.
It’s better to admit that you just don’t know.
And maybe stick to Thumper’s Law: “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say nothing at all”.
Posting this after the attacks in Paris, I think we need to be more careful with words than ever. ISIS is not a state – it is a terrorist group. And refugees are certainly not terrorists. An attack like this is even more reason to give support to refugees who are coming from countries where this sort of thing is the norm. These people aren’t bringing terrorism to Europe – they are coming here to escape it.