Any good aid worker or development practitioner will tell you how much words matter. The only people who arguably know this better than they are government policymakers. The reason is that certain words are written into international law, and using them carries responsibilities, legal obligations.
In 1994, the international community carefully and deliberately avoided using ‘the g word’ when talking about the violence taking place in Rwanda. They had evidence that genocide was happening, but very few wanted to involve themselves in a foreign war to protect people from a country they had few interests in. Using ‘the g word’ risked having their hand forced. Their solution? Just don’t use the word.
Today, the international community is applying this same template to a current crisis, only the word they’re avoiding isn’t ‘genocide,’ it’s ‘refugee.’ The war in Syria and related conflicts in Iraq and Turkey have led tens of thousands of people to flee their home countries, and unimaginable violence and horrors. These people are by definition refugees, and they’re seeking safety in the closest safe place for them: Europe. And yes, to be sure, the influx of people is massive and it places high expectations on the European systems and high costs to European people.
So, when faced with a massive influx of people which strains domestic resources – and politics – it is unsurprising that many European leaders are not using the word ‘refugees.’ They’re not talking about a refugee crisis, they’re talking about a migrant crisis. Using the word ‘migrant’ offers them flexibility in what they can ‘do’ with people. For instance, it makes it easier to deport people when they don’t acknowledge them as refugees.
It’s not just Europe, though, that’s avoiding dealing with refugees for domestic interests. In the U.S., some political leaders are trying to block refugees on the basis of religion, and some altogether, absurdly claiming they’re not refugees but rather terrorists. Some governments in sub-Saharan Africa are trying to expel tens of thousands of well-established refugees in the name of security, claiming foreign insurgents are among them. In Southeast Asia, thousands of refugees overcrowd boats trying to flee persecution only to find safe ports refusing to receive them because they don’t acknowledge the basis for persecution, their ethnicity.
Migrant. Terrorist. Insurgent. No name at all. The one word you don’t hear governments using too readily is ‘refugee.’
I am not positioned to personally determine who individually qualifies as a refugee or not, and I do not suggest that all the people trying to enter Europe or other places are in fact refugees (I do believe, though, that the vast, overwhelming majority are). My point is merely that we are still avoiding the words that enable us as an international community to help people who are among the most vulnerable in the world. We’re not doing it for flexibility in response options, but rather to expressly avoid having to meet international obligations we perceive as costly to us or politically inexpedient.
Not using words creates an excuse for not acting in response to major human rights violations or humanitarian crises. An excuse we sought to avoid by writing legal obligations into the international conventions in the first place. We ignore that the legal obligations were only meant to be a foundation for the so called ‘responsibility to protect’, not the full extent of it. They were meant to spark and entrench new international humanitarian norms to enforce adherence to the conventions. But these norms have not taken deep root, largely because when presented with situations to act, we have historically chosen loopholes in language over these new norms. This needs to change.
Enshrining human rights protection and interventionism alongside sovereignty in conventions was necessary and critical. Now we must take the next critical step and further institutionalize the international norms to prioritize humanitarianism and human rights over self-interest, and burden sharing over burden shifting. Our obligations to others existed long before they were inscribed into the conventions, they’re inherent. Now we must establish the international norms to facilitate our fulfilling those obligations.