Europe’s ‘migrant crisis’

Opinion by Mina Shah
Sept. 20, 2015, 11:12 p.m.

As I’m writing this, The New York Times’s home page is swarming with images and articles relating to what’s now being called a “migrant crisis.” What has prompted this? In part, photos published of drowned young children washed up on the shores of the Mediterranean. The attention (or rather, lack thereof) that the media has given people fleeing countries for various reasons (political, economic and social), trying to come to Europe has been largely nonexistent in the past several months. This, paired with the fact that a lot of people have died in the past few days alone, might make it seem like the term “migrant crisis” is an appropriate one.

Well, it’s not.

In fact, neither of the words characterizes the situation appropriately. “Migrant” doesn’t work, because the term is far too broad to describe the situation that most of these people are facing: having to leave their homeland because the situation is too dangerous for them to do otherwise. The media is probably shying away from the term “refugee,” because that one is too specific. The status of being a refugee is not granted in a blanket fashion; it cannot be applied to a group of people. Thus, even using it to describe a group of people who “flee, especially…who [flee] to a foreign country or power to escape danger or persecution” (Merriam Webster’s definition of a refugee) would be incorrect.

This is really to say that unless the UN gives someone refugee status, the media can’t really call them a refugee. Since none of those leaving Syria or trying to enter Europe for safety reasons have been given official refugee status, the media cannot call what is happening a “refugee crisis.”

Out of the term “migrant crisis,” the word “crisis” doesn’t exactly work either. Now, don’t get me wrong. The situation is bad. Really bad. I actually started crying when talking about it with some coworkers, and as photographs began to be publishedThe thing is, the word “crisis” implies that the problem is an acute one, something sudden that has been happening for a short period of time. That is certainly not the case here. People who either have or deserve refugee status have been trying to make it to Europe for a long time, including people from Syria, since tensions rose to the point of conflict beginning in 2011. The word “crisis” also implies that people are rushing around, urgently trying to make the situation better. I don’t see that happening. I see Europe rushing around trying to control an immigration situation, and not helping the people who really need it. I see Americans sitting back and shaking their heads, because isn’t this situation just so unfortunate!

Listen, folks. This is nothing new. The situation in Syria has been bad for a significant amount of time now. Refugees have been fleeing the country since things started getting bad. People crossing the Mediterranean to avoid death is also nothing new. In fact, there have been programs to help such people, like Italy’s Mare Nostrum program that was canceled last year and not adequately replaced.

Not only is none of it new, but none of these facts have exactly been state secrets, either. We’ve been hearing bits and pieces of what’s been happening — a picture here, an article there, but the kind of outrage and international shock that we’re feeling this time around is new.

Now, I recognize that my audience is primarily based in the United States, and it may seem that as a result, we have no control over what’s happening. I mean, it isn’t our policies that are making it difficult to come into Europe. But even if you don’t have the time, capacity or inclination to work or volunteer with UNHCR, the United States does play a huge role in UN actions. It’s entirely possible for us to write to U.N. delegates and urge them to make it easier for people to get refugee status, which, if only a little, would help some. We have the power as individuals to put that kind of pressure on, and make a difference.

We can also start being a little more aware, and not wait for images of drowned children to motivate us in working to save people’s lives and situations for the positive.

It’s highly possible that soon after this column gets published in mid September, this “migrant crisis” will have floated out of headlines. But that’s a problem. It’s exactly that sort of complacency that leads to a lack of new policy formations or plans for how exactly we can help people who are coming from truly dangerous situations. This is not the sort of thing that should slip into the recesses of our memories. If you care about other people, you should find a way to support them and not just care when it’s convenient for you to do so or when a stream of graphic images is forced in front of your face.

Contact Mina Shah at minashah ‘at’


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