The use of the term ‘economic migrants’ to describe desperate people trying to find a better life for themselves and their families conceals the reality of the brutality they face at Europe’s borders
It’s the middle of the night in the Croatian forest, and a small group of young men are walking slowly in a column, trying not to rustle the dead leaves underfoot. The men have been travelling for a week already with little rest, but they know they must keep putting one foot in front of the other.
From behind a tree jump a group of Croatian police officers in black balaclavas wielding truncheons, who order the men to stop. Maybe they strip them naked, burn their clothes and steal their money and cellphones. Maybe they beat them with truncheons until the skin on their backs breaks open. Either way, the ending is nearly always the same: the police force the men into a van, drive them to a secluded area and push them back across the border into Bosnia, from where they have come.
These descriptions may sound extreme, but as a journalist covering refugee stories in Eastern Europe, I have seen the effects of these violent pushbacks in bruises on people's bodies, and heard countless tales of the same from hundreds of refugees trying to cross from Bosnia into the EU.
In the darkness of the forest, it does not and should not matter if these men are “economic migrants” or “genuine refugees”. It isn’t the role of the EU border and the authorities who police it to welcome some in and turn others away. It certainly is not the job of state actors to beat people in the forest.
It isn’t for the media, either, to designate people’s legal statuses before they’ve even reached their final destinations in Europe. To do so creates a dichotomy between the “deserving” and the “undeserving”, and reifies the concept of borders as our protectors against those coming our way - politicians and right-wing media tell us - to take our hard-earned jobs and suck our resources dry.
Nevertheless, these negative attitudes towards desperate people who are often fleeing war and poverty, are compounded when the media wrongly refers to them as “economic migrants”.
Who the European legal system decides is a “genuine refugee” can sometimes seem arbitrary from the outside, but we are taught to think of “refugees” as more deserving of our empathy. A 2016 poll found that more than three-quarters of Europeans sympathised with Syrians fleeing to Europe. It’s doubtful that single men from Bangladesh working as farm labourers in Italy receive the same kind of sympathy.
Readers hear horror stories of families of “asylum-seekers” being left adrift at sea by the Greek Coast Guard, but are told that those beaten by Croatian police are mostly single male “migrants hoping to reach wealthier European countries”.
Last month, the New York Times published an explainer of the Poland-Belarus border crisis in which it stated: “Many of the Middle Easterners in Belarus are economic migrants who do not appear to qualify as refugees.” (The newspaper did add that this distinction “does not make the danger they face…any less real”.)
Media that pushes the “economic migrant” term falls right into the trap created by the exclusionary rhetoric of EU politicians, who have accused Belarus of “weaponising migrants” in a “hybrid attack” against the EU. This ultimately draws the focus away from the brutality of the EU’s borders, and the complicity of the EU in that brutality at the highest level.
Media that pushes the “economic migrant” term falls right
into the trap created by the exclusionary rhetoric of EU politicians
People, of course, are not weapons, and never can be. There is nothing inherently dangerous or “crisis-creating” about a few thousand Iraqi Kurds trying to find a better life in Europe.
But in the case of Poland and Belarus, the rhetoric of “weaponisation” is tolerated because the people seeking to enter are deemed “economic migrants”, undeserving of Europe’s riches and liberties. Various media outlets have replicated this rhetoric without sufficiently challenging it.
Laying aside that Europe actually needs more migration if it is to survive economically, it isn’t the job of the media or EU politicians in Brussels to decide who is an economic migrant and who is a refugee.
“Refugee” is a legal designation to be determined by an asylum court - and no other body - only after the full presentation of an individual’s asylum claim. (As a side note, the 1951 Geneva Convention on Refugees is woefully out of date for this century; it doesn’t include climate refugees, for example.)
The fact of the matter is, the European Commission and the journalists working along the Polish border alike have no idea if someone has a legitimate asylum claim or not. I know from working as a freelancer covering migration myself that a 10-minute conversation in which you ask a person why he left his home country does not an asylum court case make.
Ultimately, though, the media’s dance with the term “economic migrants” does two dangerous things.
First, it vilifies those who ultimately may not have credible asylum claims (but, as the Times pointed out, still don’t deserve to freeze to death at the border), and diverts the blame for the “border crisis” to those seeking protection (ie: “Why are so many people coming here?” “Why can’t they stay and fix their country’s problems?” etc.)
Second, the dialogue of “economic migrants” obfuscates the true cause of the so-called “refugee crisis” altogether: the EU’s own hardline migration policies that shore up borders and crack down on asylum-seekers and economic migrants alike with seeming impunity.
What borders do is kill, indiscriminately and unfailingly. Journalists should write about that (and the good ones do). Using terms like “economic migrants” in news articles about the border ultimately plays right into the hands of the carceral state.
Lucy Papachristou is a freelance journalist focusing on refugee stories
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera Journalism Review’s editorial stance