Al Jazeera Journalism Review

Language 1
Journalists document a group of migrants packed tightly onto a small inflatable boat attempting to cross the English Channel near the Dover Strait, the world's busiest shipping lane in September 2020. [Photo by Luke Dray/Getty Images]

Why language matters when we report refugee stories

As tragedy strikes in the English Channel and the refugee crisis mounts at the Polish border, we examine why it is so important to use the correct language when covering refugee stories. Part two of our series.

Read more: Part One, Part Three, Part Four

Prior to working on reporting the refugee crisis, you must be aware of the linguistic nuances that are crucial to the story – the distinction, according to the United Nations (UN), between a refugee, an internally displaced person (IDP), an asylum seeker, an economic migrant and a stateless person.

Refugees are people who fled their country due to war, conflict, feared persecution, or other circumstances that have seriously disturbed public order, and who, as a result, require international protection.

IDPs are persons or groups of persons who have been forced to leave their homes or communities, due to the effects of armed conflict, generalised violence, violations of human rights or natural or human-made disasters. The main difference between an IDP and a refugee is that the former has not fled to another state, whereas the latter has. The rights and well-being of IDPs are still the responsibility of their national government, while refugees are protected by international law.

Xenophobia can be fuelled as people switch from sympathising with the plight of the oppressed to becoming hostile to others who are perceived to be 'jumping the queue' to gain the benefits of living in an affluent society

 

An asylum-seeker is someone who is seeking international protection and has requested asylum in a foreign country due to persecution or serious danger, but whose claim has not yet been assessed. In other words, an asylum seeker is someone who has formally requested to be granted status as a refugee in a foreign nation. All refugees are asylum seekers, but not all asylum seekers will end up being formally recognised as refugees and protected by international law.

An economic migrant is someone who has chosen to leave their country of origin for reasons such as better economic opportunities or living standards. Hardships can force people to migrate for economic reasons. However, regardless of the reasons, it is important to distinguish economic migrants from refugees, as the former are not subject to international protection.

A stateless person is “a person who is not considered as a national by any state under the operation of its law”. In the context of Syria in particular, most stateless persons are children born to refugees who have fled the country and been unable to register their newborns.

Language 2
KOS, GREECE: Hundreds of migrant men, women and children along with tourists and locals board a ferry bound for Athens on June 4, 2015. [Photo by Dan Kitwood/Getty Images]

Identifying false narratives 

These distinctions are important because of the rhetoric surrounding the refugee crisis in places that have received thousands of people over the last few years. 

Some of the arguments that call for limitations on the influx of refugees are based on the assumption that many of those seeking new homes abroad are not, in fact, refugees, but economic migrants, who are not fleeing persecution but possibly seeking to usurp the jobs of people in the countries that have welcomed them. This is a problematic issue as it transforms the debate from one around shielding the vulnerable from death and destruction to one about economic opportunities. 

An understanding of the distinctions will help you to clarify when false narratives are being propagated and to grasp the nuances of local reactions to influxes of people fleeing their countries

 

Xenophobia can be fuelled as people switch from sympathising with the plight of the oppressed to becoming hostile to others who are perceived to be “jumping the queue” to gain the benefits of living in an affluent society. This is not meant as an argument against protecting economic migrants: they are also subject to a range of abuses, as evidenced by a CNN investigation that showed African migrants attempting to flee to Europe being held in horrific conditions in detention centres in Libya and even sold as slaves. 

Reporting on the abuses these people face and the conditions of economic inequality that spurred their flight are necessary. However, an understanding of the distinctions will help you to clarify when false narratives are being propagated and to grasp the nuances of local reactions to influxes of people fleeing their countries, besides the obligations of the states and the international community to those individuals. Always ask yourself who benefits from creating and propagating these false narratives. 

Language 3
SUBOTICA, SERBIA: Migrants make their way through Serbia, near the town of Subotica, towards a break in the steel and razor fence erected on the border by the Hungarian government on September 9, 2015. [Photo by Christopher Furlong/Getty Images]

Learning who is entitled to international protection 

It is also important to understand the definitions because the status of an individual fleeing their country determines whether they have access to international protection. In the specific case of refugees, this includes a responsibility to admit them and ensure they are not forced to return to the place where they suffered persecution or violence, to ensure their safety and well-being, help them deal with trauma, help solve the crisis that led to their flight, help them return to their homes if that becomes feasible, and assist in their integration in their host country.

Always ask yourself who benefits from creating and propagating these false narratives

 

As a journalist covering these issues, you must understand these distinctions and report on trends in the movement of peoples around the world objectively, first by determining the kind of story you are reporting on. Quick Overview: Who is Protected by International Law? While refugees and asylum seekers are protected by international law, IDPs and economic migrants are not. 

Knowing this will help frame your understanding of how these individuals are being treated by the countries where they have sought refuge, to understand the abuse or violation of rights that they suffer in the context of international laws and conventions, and to determine whether the host country is violating its international commitments. 

A good starting point is an identification of whether the host country has signed the international treaties and covenants that protect refugees and asylum seekers.

language 4
UNITED KINGDOM: Migrants packed tightly onto a small inflatable boat attempt to cross the English Channel near the Dover Strait, the world's busiest shipping lane, on September 7, 2020 [Photo by Luke Dray/Getty Images]

International Refugee Protection Regime 

The legal regime protecting refugees is called international refugee protection, and is formed by: 

• Article 14 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights - the right of everyone to seek and enjoy asylum. The notion of asylum would be developed later, in the 1951 Convention. 

• The bedrock of the legal framework of refugee protection, the 1951 Convention related to the Status of Refugees and its 1967 Protocol, along with regional legal instruments, such as the 1969 Organisation of African Unity Convention Governing the Specific Aspects of Refugee Problems in Africa and the Cartagena Declaration. 

 

Use of terminology at Al Jazeera

By Montaser Marai, Manager of Media Development at the Al Jazeera Media Institute

The English and Arabic Channels of Al Jazeera have debated thoroughly which words should be used to refer to people who have left their countries under a variety of circumstances. When large waves of asylum seekers first began to travel from Turkey to Europe, editors at our newsrooms used the term “migrant”. 

Editorial discussions later took place about the need to employ more precise terminology, taking into account the context in which people were leaving their countries of origin. The first decision on terminology was in relation to Syrians forced to leave their homes because of war. Our newsrooms acknowledged that referring to them as “migrants” did not accurately describe their situation, or the wider context of the humanitarian crisis they were experiencing and, consequently, deprived them of the rights they were entitled to under international human rights and humanitarian law. 

A second editorial decision was made to refrain from using the term “illegal immigrants” and to replace it with “irregular immigrants” to refer to people leaving their country of origin for economic reasons. Al Jazeera has thus raised awareness within its newsrooms of the need to exercise caution not to fall into terminology traps that might seek to shape narratives, for example by depicting all people arriving in particular countries as illegal.

 

This article first appeared in the AJMI publication, Covering Refugee Stories

 

More Articles

Virtual reality in the newsroom - placing us in the middle of the story

Journalists can use virtual reality to get a much clearer view of what is happening on the ground during conflict or other major events. This is how it works

Hadeel Arja Published on: 23 Jun, 2022
Why are so many journalists being killed in Bangladesh?

A decade after the brutal murders of a prominent journalist couple in Dhaka, the killers have still not been brought to justice - they remain at large along with those responsible for the deaths of many other journalists

Rokeya
Rokeya Lita Published on: 20 Jun, 2022
She showed me a picture of her dead son - moments later, she was back with the tea and cake

Listening to stories of trauma and loss caused by conflict and natural disaster - such as those of women in Pakistan-controlled Kashmir - is what many journalists must do to find and report the truth. The way in which we listen while setting aside preconceived notions of how victims ‘should’ behave is critical

Anam Z
Anam Zakaria Published on: 16 Jun, 2022
‘I still have nightmares’ - reporting on hate crimes in India

A handful of brave journalists have taken on the task of documenting and exposing hate crimes - often at great personal cost

Safina
Safina Nabi Published on: 14 Jun, 2022
Caught between warring factions - life as a journalist in Cameroon

Cameroon’s anglophone crisis has resulted in large parts of the country becoming no-go zones for reporters who must find other ways to do their jobs

Akem
Akem Nkwain Published on: 8 Jun, 2022
'We are not scared; we will tell our stories' - introducing Somalia’s first women-only newsroom

Braving threats from Al Shabaab as well as disapproval from their own, often patriarchal communities, six pioneering women have set up their own news agency in Somalia

Abdullahi Mire
Abdullahi Mire Published on: 1 Jun, 2022
‘You will be silenced’ - investigating human traffickers in Nigeria

REPORTER'S NOTEBOOK: Philip Obaji Jr has devoted years to uncovering and reporting on the sexual abuse and human trafficking of displaced women and girls in Nigeria. This is his story

Philip Obaji Jr
Philip Obaji Jr Published on: 18 May, 2022
‘Like walking on a tightrope’ - navigating a career as a journalist in Vietnam

THE LONG READ: Through a series of in-depth interviews with journalists in Vietnam, our writer - who remains anonymous for security reasons - paints a picture of censorship and journalists facing fines and even prison for mentioning ‘toxic’ subjects

headshot
Al Jazeera Journalism Review Correspondent Published on: 12 May, 2022
‘It takes courage to be a journalist in India’ - charting the collapse of press autonomy

THE LONG READ: With a rising number of journalists in India receiving ‘summons’ from the police and even finding themselves in prison just for doing their jobs, we ask - why has the profession come under so much pressure in recent years?

Abeer Khan Published on: 21 Apr, 2022
Beyond bystanders: Citizen journalism during the Egyptian revolution

A journalist looks back at the founding of RASSD News Network during the Egyptian revolution, which trained and supported ordinary citizens to become journalists

Khaled Faheem
Khaled Faheem Published on: 14 Apr, 2022
‘The bottom of human misery’ - reporting on Rohingya refugee women and girls

THE LONG READ: How should we go about reporting on members of vulnerable communities in an ethical way? We examine the case of Rohingya refugees, overwhelmed and struggling for survival in the refugee camps of Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh 

Azraa
Azraa Muthy Published on: 11 Apr, 2022
How smartphones are changing the face of news journalism

The telegraph transformed the way that newspapers could report the news more than 150 years ago. Now, smartphones are doing the same for TV news organisations

Rokeya
Rokeya Lita Published on: 5 Apr, 2022
Telling the stories of brutality - reporting on political prisoners in Belarus

REPORTER’S NOTEBOOK: Constructing a long-form feature to document the narratives of Belarusians imprisoned for protesting after the 2020 presidential election was a pain-staking, months-long task fraught with danger

Olga
Olga Loginova, Ottavia Spaggiari Published on: 30 Mar, 2022
From Syria to Ukraine - telling the stories of Russian aggression

REPORTER’S NOTEBOOK: Omar Al Hajj, a Syrian journalist working for Al Jazeera, explains what it’s like to go from covering war in his own country to bearing witness to another on a different continent

A picture of the author, Mohammad Ahdad.
Mohammad Ahdad Published on: 15 Mar, 2022
‘A sense of belonging has been taken away from us’ - the closure of the Kashmir Press Club

THE LONG READ: The closure of the Kashmir Press Club in January this year has come as a major blow to independent journalists in the troubled region who relied on it for camaraderie, respite and a ‘place to share ideas’

Meher
Meher Qadri Published on: 10 Mar, 2022
Reporter’s Notebook: Inside Europe’s largest brothel 

While covering a story about a Spanish proposal to outlaw middlemen involved in prostitution, AJE senior correspondent Natasha Ghoneim and her team came up against a wall of silence, but managed to get a story nevertheless

Natasha Ghoneim
Natasha Ghoneim Published on: 8 Mar, 2022
Investigating racist conviction laws in America - and seeing a man freed after 25 years

REPORTER’S NOTEBOOK:  How a team of journalists spent nearly a year investigating the conviction and 25-year imprisonment of Brandon Jackson and then watched him walk free

Jeremy Young
Jeremy Young Published on: 2 Mar, 2022
Reporter’s Notebook - on the trail of Boko Haram

For one journalist in Nigeria, covering the activities of the militant Islamist group, Boko Haram, primarily means documenting the horrifying stories of its victims, sometimes to his own cost

Philip Obaji Jr
Philip Obaji Jr Published on: 21 Feb, 2022
Avoiding mistakes in the newsroom - verifying video from external sources

When video of Osama Bin Laden surfaced around the time of the September 11 attacks on New York in 2001, many people questioned its credibility. We examine how Al Jazeera verifies the authenticity of outside materials, much of it produced by 'citizen journalists' 

A picture of the author, Montaser Marai.
Montaser Marai Published on: 15 Feb, 2022
Branded a ‘troublemaker’ and summoned by the police - life for female journalists in Kashmir

The repeal of Kashmir’s autonomous status by the Indian government, combined with a crackdown on press freedom, has made life extremely tough for women journalists in the region.

Safina
Safina Nabi Published on: 10 Feb, 2022
Making the world a better place - one camera ‘click’ at a time

REPORTER’S NOTEBOOK: How one photojournalist in Nigeria takes a ‘solutions-based’ approach to the images he captures.

Femi2
Femi Amogunla Published on: 2 Feb, 2022
Deploying news teams to dangerous places - what media organisations need to know

Reporting from the heat of battle or covering the tragedy and desolation of a humanitarian disaster can be perilous, but the risks are less if media professionals are prepared for the task. 

Aidan
Aidan White Published on: 27 Jan, 2022
When war is on your doorstep - the impossible road taken by a citizen journalist 

REPORTER'S NOTEBOOK: The 11-year war in Syria has shone a light on the struggles of local journalists who are often dismissed as ‘mere’ activists and whose plight is largely ignored by the international community. 

Zaina
Zaina Erhaim Published on: 20 Jan, 2022
Can you spot the fake news? Steering clear of conspiracies in science journalism

The world is full of fake news, nowhere more so than when it comes to scientific issues, so science journalists must develop a keen sense of scepticism. We look at why it’s so important to keep a clear head and search out the facts.

Ali
Ali Shehab Published on: 12 Jan, 2022