Al Jazeera Journalism Review

outside image
The Geo Barents rescue ship, operated by Medecins Sans Frontieres (Doctors Without Borders), brings people aboard from a wooden boat off the coast of Libya in the central Mediterranean Sea on March 24, 2023 [Darrin Zammit Lupi/Reuters]

Victims of the Mediterranean: ‘Migrants’ or ‘Refugees’?

The term ‘migrant’ insufficient to describe victims of the horror unfolding in the Mediterranean Sea; it dehumanises these people and is a failure of journalism


International media outlets are increasingly opting to use the term "migrants" to describe individuals who have drowned off the coast of Greece during their often desperate journeys from their homelands to Europe.

This choice of terminology raises both professional and ethical issues, especially when its underlying intent is to strip people of their fundamental right to protection.

So, what is the most accurate term to describe the tragedies that have occurred in Greece and continue to unfold in other parts of the world?

Are these people “irregular migrants” seeking merely to improve their living conditions? Or are they refugees fleeing wars, conflicts, persecution and life-threatening economic crises, who are in dire need of protection?

At the height of the massive influx of hundreds of thousands of people from Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and other regions experiencing wars and economic crises, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees stated: "We must be clear, most people arriving by sea are refugees in need of protection from war and persecution".

This statement, however, has not deterred media outlets from using the term "migrants", which lends legitimacy to the policies of receiving countries to evade their responsibilities.

The decision to use such terminology in media coverage is not a "semantically" innocent choice; it may harbour underlying political motives.

In 2015, Al Jazeera set a new journalistic standard by clearly announcing that it would abandon the systematic use of the word "migrant", considering the term to have become "pejorative" and "reductive" and a tool to strip refugees of their humanity and to legitimise racist discourse.

UNHCR has previously waded into this debate, providing definitions that draw a line between "migrants" and "refugees". According to these definitions, refugees are "people fleeing armed conflict or persecution. 

The role of journalism in holding governments accountable imposes on journalists the duty to question the official narrative


“Their situation is often so perilous and intolerable that they cross national borders seeking safety in nearby countries, and thus are internationally recognised as 'refugees' eligible for assistance from states, the UNHCR and other organisations.

“They are specifically recognised as refugees because their return to their homeland would be exceedingly dangerous and they need a safe haven elsewhere. Denying these people asylum could have fatal consequences."

UNHCR defines migrants as "people who choose to move not because of a direct threat of persecution or death but to improve their lives by finding work, or in some cases, for education, family reunion or other reasons.

“Unlike refugees, who cannot return to their homeland safely, migrants face no such impediments to return. If they choose to return home, they continue to receive protection from their government."

Receiving countries’ governments often adopt these definitions in a manner closer to ideological interpretation than to humanitarian values embodied in international solidarity and protection.

This use of terminology has frequently been criticised by human rights organisations for its political and ideological load.

The role of journalism in holding governments accountable - especially in host countries - imposes on journalists the duty to question the official narrative that seeks to evade its responsibilities when hundreds of people tragically drown at sea. 

Dozens of accounts from survivors have debunked the official narratives that try to portray the deceased as culprits rather than victims, attempting each time to place blame on human smuggling mafias in their home countries.

The term "migrant", often employed as a "political umbrella", is no longer sufficient to describe the horror unfolding in the Mediterranean Sea; it dehumanises people and contradicts the international human rights framework.

UNHCR issued a memo in 2013 concerning Syria, categorising refugees as "any person fleeing the country and meeting specific conditions at times (opponents, journalists) and also very broad conditions: children exposed to violence, women subjected to rape or forced marriage, people belonging to a religious or ethnic group... includes all the population". 

This categorisation also includes government supporters who are being persecuted by rebels, excluding individuals identified as having committed acts of violence.

So far - except in some media outlets - the term 'migrant' dominates coverage, aligning with an official narrative which enables governments to shirk responsibility for their protection


Given this definition and the leaked information on the identities of the drowned individuals off the coast of Greece, should Sudanese people, many of whom live at risk of armed conflict that has claimed thousands of lives, be described as migrants or refugees eligible for protection?

So far - except in some media outlets - the term "migrant" dominates coverage, aligning with an official narrative which enables governments to shirk responsibility for their protection.

For instance, Reuters went further than using the term "migrants" by relaying the government's narrative and describing them as "suspects" legally responsible for the incident.

Le Monde, on the other hand, which has previously published an article explaining its editorial stance on using the terms "migrants" or "refugees", opted for the term “migrants”.

Al Jazeera chose to use both terms to indicate that the drowned individuals came from war zones like Sudan, as well as migrants seeking to improve their living conditions.

These are editorial choices, sometimes tied to purely political objectives, driven by an unprecedented surge in far-right rhetoric against immigration and asylum. 

This transforms individuals fleeing wars, persecution and crippling economic crises into mere "migrants" without an identity or history.

Returning to the essential question: what is the most accurate and appropriate term to describe people who have reached Greece, Italy and Spain via boats or other means? Are they refugees or migrants?

UNHCR has answered this question by saying that: "In reality, they are both. The majority of people who have reached Italy and Greece specifically come from countries engulfed in wars or considered 'refugee-producing' and need international protection. A smaller proportion of these people come from other places, and for many of them, the term 'migrant' may be more appropriate".

It is the job of the journalist to determine which, in an objective manner, and not to be swayed by prevailing anti-immigrant sentiment across Europe.

Mohammad Ahdad is Editor of Al Jazeera Journalism Review (Arabic)


Translated from the original Arabic by Yousef Awadh

More Articles

Why Journalists are Speaking out Against Western Media Bias in Reporting on Israel-Palestine

Over 1500 journalists from various US news organizations have signed an open letter criticizing the Western media's coverage of Israel's actions against Palestinians. They accuse newsrooms of dehumanizing rhetoric, bias, and the use of inflammatory language that reinforces stereotypes, lack of context, misinformation, biased language, and the focus on certain perspectives while diminishing others. They call for more accurate and critical coverage, the use of well-defined terms like "apartheid" and "ethnic cleansing," and the inclusion of Palestinian voices in reporting.

Belle de Jong journalist
Belle de Jong Published on: 26 Feb, 2024
Silenced Voices and Digital Resilience: The Case of Quds Network

Unrecognized journalists in conflict zones face serious risks to their safety and lack of support. The Quds Network, a Palestinian media outlet, has been targeted and censored, but they continue to report on the ground in Gaza. Recognition and support for independent journalists are crucial.

Yousef Abu Watfe يوسف أبو وطفة
Yousef Abu Watfeh Published on: 21 Feb, 2024
Artificial Intelligence's Potentials and Challenges in the African Media Landscape

How has the proliferation of Artificial Intelligence impacted newsroom operations, job security and regulation in the African media landscape? And how are journalists in Africa adapting to these changes?

Derick M
Derick Matsengarwodzi Published on: 18 Feb, 2024
Media Monopoly in Brazil: How Dominant Media Houses Control the Narrative and Stifle Criticism of Israel

An in-depth analysis exploring the concentration of media ownership in Brazil by large companies, and how this shapes public and political narratives, particularly by suppressing criticism of Israel.

Al Jazeera Logo
Rita Freire & Ahmad Al Zobi Published on: 1 Feb, 2024
The Perils of Unverified News: A Case of Nonexistent Flotillas

Can you hide one thousand ships in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea? I would say not. But some of my fellow journalists seem to believe in magic.  

Ilya U Topper Published on: 16 Jan, 2024
In the Courtroom and Beyond: Covering South Africa's Historic Legal Case Against Israel at The Hague

As South Africa takes on Israel at the International Court of Justice, the role of journalists in covering this landmark case becomes more crucial than ever. Their insights and reporting bring the complexities of international law to a global audience.

Hala Ahed
Hala Ahed Published on: 12 Jan, 2024
Did the NYTimes Manipulate the Sexual Violence Allegations of October 7?

An in-depth examination of the New York Times's investigation of alleged sexual assaults by Hamas during the Israeli war on Gaza, highlighting ethical concerns, and the impact of its reporting on the victims' families. It questions the journalistic integrity of the Times, especially in the context of Western media's portrayal of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

A picture of the Al Jazeera Media Institute's logo, on a white background.
Al Jazeera Journalism Review Published on: 7 Jan, 2024
Is The New York Times Reproducing Allegations of 'Sexual Violence' to Downplay Israeli Crimes?

The New York Times' report on alleged sexual violence by Palestinian militants raises profound concerns about discrepancies in key testimonies and a biased reporting that aligns with Israeli narratives and downplays Israeli crimes in Gaza.

Mohammad Zeidan
Mohammad Zeidan Published on: 31 Dec, 2023
Embedded journalism: Striking a balance between access and impartiality in war zones

The ethical implications of embedded journalism, particularly in the Israeli invasion of Gaza, raise concerns about the compromise of balance and independence in war coverage.

Abeer Ayyoub
Abeer Ayyoub Published on: 19 Dec, 2023
Through a Mexican lens: Navigating the intricacies of reporting in Palestine

A Mexican journalist's journey through the complexities of reporting on Palestine and gives tips on how to manage this kind of coverage.

Témoris Grecko
Témoris Grecko Published on: 10 Dec, 2023
Echos of Israeli Discourse in Latin American Media on Gaza

Heavily influenced by US and Israeli diplomatic efforts, Latin American media predominantly aligns with and amplifies the Israeli perspective. This divergence between political actions and media representation highlights the complex dynamics shaping Latin American coverage of the Gaza conflict.

Rita Freire Published on: 23 Nov, 2023
Critique of German media's handling of Gaza Conflict

The German media's coverage of the Gaza conflict has been criticized for being biased, presenting a distorted view of the conflict, focusing only on the Israeli perspective, and downplaying the suffering of Palestinians. This biased reporting undermines the media's role as an objective source of information and fails to provide a balanced view of the conflict.

AJR Contributor Published on: 16 Nov, 2023
Colonial legacy of surveillance: hidden world of surveillance technology in the African continent

African nations’ expenditure on surveillance technology from China, Europe and the US is a direct threat to the media, democracy and freedom of speech, and an enduring legacy of colonial surveillance practices.

Derick M
Derick Matsengarwodzi Published on: 14 Nov, 2023
How the New York Times fuelled a crackdown on journalists in India

Vague reporting and a piece ‘laden with innuendo’ by the New York Times gave Indian authorities the excuse they needed to crack down on news website Newsclick

Meer Faisal
Meer Faisal Published on: 31 Oct, 2023
Journalists feel the pain, but the story of Gaza must be told  

People don’t always want to hear the historical context behind horrifying events, resorting even to censorship, but the media must be free to provide it

Aidan White Published on: 30 Oct, 2023
Queen Rania is absolutely right - Western media’s double standards on Gaza

Why does international media use loaded and dehumanising language about the Palestinians when reporting on the Israeli bombardment of 2.2 million people in Gaza?

Abeer Ayyoub
Abeer Ayyoub Published on: 27 Oct, 2023
'War propaganda' - Brazil’s media has abandoned journalistic standards over Gaza

Brazil’s mainstream media, in its unwavering support for Israel, is out of step with public and social media responses to the bombardment of Gaza

Bruno Lima Rocha Beaklini Published on: 25 Oct, 2023
‘Emotional truth’ is not a cover for fabricating stories

Comedians who engage with the news should not be free to ignore the rules of ethical journalism

Akanksha Singh Published on: 16 Oct, 2023
Get this straight, Western media: Palestinians aren’t sub-human

Dehumanisation of Palestinians is as central to Israel’s war strategy as the deadly missiles it wields

Andrew Mitrovica Published on: 10 Oct, 2023
Why is a Western news organisation funding propaganda in India?

ANI, the world’s largest source of Indian news, receives funding from Thomson-Reuters, despite widespread condemnation for its misinformation about Muslims

Morley Musick Published on: 18 Sep, 2023
How do we determine 'newsworthiness' in the digital age?

The relentless flow of news in the digital age has re-shaped the parameters by which we decide what is 'news' and what is not

Muhammad Khamaiseh Published on: 11 Sep, 2023
‘Focus on the story, not the storyteller’ - the dilemma of a diaspora journalist

When reporting on their homelands, diaspora journalists walk a fine line between emotional connection and objective storytelling

Anam Hussain
Anam Hussain Published on: 4 Sep, 2023
Why does Arab media fail so badly at covering refugee issues?

Arabic media discourse on refugees and migrants frequently aligns too closely with the Western narrative, often spreading fear of migrants while emphasising the burdens of asylum

A picture of the author, Ahmad Abu Hamad
Ahmad Abu Hamad Published on: 28 Aug, 2023
What does Zimbabwe’s new ‘Patriot Bill’ mean for journalists?  

As Zimbabwe heads into elections this week, a new law dubbed the ‘Patriot Bill’ will further criminalise journalism

Derick M
Derick Matsengarwodzi Published on: 21 Aug, 2023