Swarm of People? Human Tsunami? The Words We Use to Frame Europe's Migrant Crisis Are Skewing Our Analysis

Throughout the horrors of bodies found in a lorry in Austria and the drowning of three-year-old Aylan Kurdi, the reporting and focus on Europe’s migrant crisis has been unwavering. Certainly, the fact that this crisis is taking place so close to home justifies the sustained debate, but it doesn’t explain the tone.

We are treated to superlatives like the “tide of humanity” or “human tsunami,” not to mention David Cameron’s “swarm of people.” The choice of words implies that migrants and refugees are inexorably drawn to Europe, reinforcing our bias about life and people in conflict zones and developing countries.

But when it comes to refugee flows impacting Africa or the Middle East, we tend to be weary. UK media, from The Guardian to The Daily Mail, reporting on refugees fleeing Burundi described the crisis as raising “fears of further instability” and the country as “on the brink of trouble once again.”

At the same time, no emotional barometer exists to test my view, but let’s say you too sense the difference. Does the discrepancy come from the fact that we expect chaos in certain countries? What does this expectation reveal about our view of these countries? And even more biting and uncomfortable, our perception of the people who live there?

We seem to believe that life in certain regions has become so bad as to make the draw of Europe inevitable. The land of milk and honey awaits and is better, not only economically, but in almost every other way including culturally and democratically. This may sound harsh when stated outright, yet it’s a perception that has a way of taking root.

We may not even be aware of our own bias; offhanded remarks on seemingly unrelated topics belie assumptions hidden from ourselves. While working in Central Africa, I heard colleagues remark that Rwanda, and in particular its capital Kigali, is so clean and organized. Well, cleaner than what? Geneva, for example, is spotless. You could probably get away with licking the sidewalk, but you don’t often hear praises of its cleanliness. Is the standard for Rwanda so much lower than the one for Geneva? And if so, we should really look into that.

At this point, I feel eyes rolling. “You’re dissecting too much,” someone might say. “You’re oversensitive” another might interject. These are fair statements. They ask the question: What do we stand to gain by wading through language choice and the possible bias underpinning it apart from preventing hurt feelings and ruffled feathers?

I would answer, a lot. Without self-analysis, it’s easy to get blindsided. In the case of Europe’s refugee crisis, the overriding narrative that everyone in the Middle East and Africa has their sights on Europe leads us to conclude that a massive flow of humanity from there to here was bound to happen. The logic is so seductive that almost nobody is interrogating the timing of the crisis. Why now? The war in Syria is already entering its fifth year.

I don’t have the answer. I only raise the issue to show how assumptions can fog our vision and shut down lines of questioning. When it comes to the refugee crisis our glasses are smudged; a dab of self-analysis might wipe them clean and pave the way for more careful consideration.

Comments are closed.