A speaker from the International Catholic Migration Committee in the UNHCR conference room this morning made an interesting point about the ambiguity of the language used to refer to elements of this refugee crisis, and in particular the importance of discerning what is fact and what is rhetoric. It has often frustrated me that many who talk about the refugee crisis refer to the Syrian people as ‘migrants’, or worse, ‘illegal immigrants’. This definition is of vital importance. The speaker made the point that the UN General Assembly has been very clear on the fact that the terms to be used in reference to these desperate people are ‘irregular’, not ‘illegal’, migrants, as well as refugees and asylum seekers. The 1951 Convention by the UNHCR concerning the protection of refugees cannot be implemented or made effective if the language used does not directly refer to ‘refugees’. The free and easy use of the word ‘migrant’ in this situation opens the way, very dangerously, to the use of polemic and rhetoric, language that does not serve the unification of the international community or any kind of compassionate response to the crisis: it serves politics, xenophobia and discrimination. The distinction of the use of language when we refer to human beings in horrific situation is far more insidious, and far more important, than many are aware. It is not that we ‘should’ help. It is that we ‘shall’ help.

By Grace Carroll