Most seeking asylum in Europe are refugees, not mere migrants: Nahlah Ayed

Images of people being tear-gassed with their children at borders, of scrambling onto overflowing trains have forced everyone to see their journeys in a new light.

Word 'migrant' at milder end of lexicon that aims to diminish suffering caused by Syrian war

Syrian refugees pack the stands inside the national stadium on the Greek island of Kos Aug. 11. The refugees are held by Greek police, but they hope to make their way farther into Europe. (Yannis Behrakis/Reuters)

Over the decades, the well-used back roads to Europe have seen it all: the fake passport holders, the stealthy sneaking in through forests; the countless who came hidden in ship containers.

We heard the stories of their hard-won arrivals, and we even met them after the fact. We made judgments. But we saw little of their European ordeal.

Things have changed. Early Tuesday morning, a Periscope broadcast courtesy of a journalist for the German Bild magazine captured video of a group of Syrian youth as they set foot in Germany after an arduous journey from Aleppo, their broad smiles beamed to us live.

"I'm very very happy, it's a dream coming true," said Feras, one of the disheveled youth who'd left Aleppo, traversing Turkey, the Mediterranean, Greece, Macedonia, Serbia, Hungary and Austria to eventually walk across the German border on Tuesday morning.

They know the risks and still they are driven to take such extrememeasures, and that tells us about the situation from what they are fleeingfrom.- Dipti Pardeshi, IOM

You listen and watch him, and suddenly the word "migrant" makes no sense, when it's clear he and his friends are refugees.

There are thousands of them now tracing Feras's footsteps on the continent, a walking archive of the terrible woes on the less fortunate side of the Mediterranean. 

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In fact, by year's end Germany estimates some 800,000 Ferases will have arrived. Many are chronicling their stories

Macedonian police try to block the migrants entering the country from Greece on Aug. 22. (Vlatko Perkovski/Associated Press)

Europe's back road has turned into a highway, laid open for the world to see.

The incredible images of people walking across borders, of being tear-gassed with their children and others, of scrambling onto overflowing trains — have forced everyone to see their journeys in a new light. 

Several media organizations, as well as CBC News, are choosing words other than "migrant" to describe the people arriving on Europe's shores. 

That is at the milder end of a whole lexicon that attempts to dehumanize and diminish what these people go through. 

British Prime minister David Cameron recently called them a "swarm."

The U.K. foreign secretary described them as "marauding."

Some media describe them as a "flood" and a "threat." A column in Britain's Sun media went much further, describing them as a "plague of feral humans" and comparing them to "cockroaches." 

That drew condemnation from the UN human rights chief, who compared it to the hateful language of Nazis. He said it fed "a vicious cycle of vilification, intolerance and politicization of migrants."

"Migrant" can indirectly contribute to the same effect, but mostly it misleads. 

One of the most offensive things about it is that it simply denies the chief culprit behind, and the source of, the desperation we're watching unfold: War.

'Each one has a human story'

Many of these people are no doubt driven from a variety of poor countries and undertake a risky journey for economic reasons, but many others are arriving from countries long steeped in violence. Most of the arrivals on Feras's route are Syrians fleeing a seething civil war. That makes them refugees.

Migrants from Syria queue for a bus along a road in a village near the town of Presevo, Serbia on Aug. 24. (Marko Djurica/Reuters)

That word, along with the images of hundreds of Syrians walking across the continent, serves as a reminder of how little has been done to try to cool Syria's cauldron of killing. Also, of how little has been done to help the neighbouring countries truly struggling with the millions of refugees fleeing that war: chiefly Lebanon and Turkey, where many of these dangerous journeys begin.

It's what many of the refugees themselves say. 

"You have to help us to finish the war in Syria," one Syrian man said at the Greek-Macedonian border. "If you finish now, I will go back from this point."

It doesn't appear to be anywhere near finished. And the consequences on a continent increasingly queasy about immigration are in plain view: in makeshift refugee camps now from Budapest, to Belgrade, to Berlin.

In every case, it will be important to understand how they (and Europe) got here, says the International Organization for Migration.

"What can make a person take such a dangerous journey?" asks Dipti Pardeshi, chief of mission at the IOM in the U.K.

"They know the risks and still they are driven to take such extreme measures, and that tells us about the situation from what they are fleeing from.

"So each one has a human story of their own and this is what we need to hear."

That intimacy will test Europe's tolerance. It will test its ability to make room, in language and on land.


Nahlah Ayed

Host of CBC Ideas

Nahlah Ayed is the host of the nightly CBC Radio program Ideas. A veteran of foreign reportage, she's spent nearly a decade covering major world events from London, and another decade covering upheaval across the Middle East. Ayed was previously a parliamentary reporter for The Canadian Press.