Op-Ed: Negative narratives, mistaken metaphors. The need for careful language on migration 

Migration is a politically sensitive subject, the topic of heated public debates and one of the defining issues in many national elections. All the more reason for sensible, rational and neutral language, to enable balanced and productive discussions and approaches on the challenges and opportunities of migration. Rightly so, objective 17 of the Global Compact for Migration, included a commitment to “promote an open and evidence-based public discourse on migration and migrants in partnership with all parts of society, that generates a more realistic, humane and constructive perception in this regard”.

Language on migration influences our thinking and behaviour

It should therefore be expected that responsible policy makers, leaders, experts and media refrain from dehumanising, toxic metaphors and fear-invoking language when talking about migration. Language influences our cognition and behaviour. The more migration is presented in public discourse and media as something to fear, as out of control and as a problem to be solved, the more the general public will perceive it as such. Which prevents a more level-headed discussion, with more and more voters finding appeal in politicians with extreme views on migration, creating a vicious cycle of ever more political panic and ad hoc actions. This stands in the way of developing more rational, humane, smart and comprehensive approaches to migration.

Some politicians, very well aware of this dynamic, use this to their political advantage, describing migration as a poison to society, or referring to tsunamis or invasions of migrants. While despicable, perhaps it is a lost cause and nothing better can be expected from them.

Almost more concerning, or at least more worth actively pointing out and pushing back against, are those cases where, perhaps without malicious intentions, more mainstream leaders and media resort to mistaken or dehumanising metaphors or any language that presents migration as an inherently problematic phenomenon that needs to be ‘solved’.

As pointed out in an earlier Op-ed, the narrative of ‘root causes’ of migration, increasingly prevalent in the Western policy discourse on migration, is overwhelmingly negative about migration. It implies “we need to cut the problem at the roots”, otherwise it keeps growing back.

Water metaphors

Even more problematic are the so-called inundation metaphors: refugees and migrants “pouring or flooding in”, “waves and tides of migrants”, places “swamped by migrants”, or even just “flows”. It all creates an image of refugees and migrants as water. It signals a notion of danger. It dehumanises the individual human beings who migrate and it takes away their agency, as if they just flow from one place to the other, as an uncontrollable natural phenomenon.

For public support to humane and sensible migration and refugee policies, people need to feel that their leaders are in control, but these water metaphors signal the exact opposite. The notion of danger and lack of control fuels anti-migration sentiments.

As argued above, especially concerning is that these water metaphors are not only used in conservative, anti-migration circles. They have become so normalised, that they are commonly used even by those who are not necessarily running an anti-migration agenda. Not necessarily with bad intentions, but clearly lacking awareness of the negative connotation and impact it may have. A 2016 PRI article gave the example of Barack Obama’s January 2016 State of the Union, saying how places falling victim to ethnic conflict or famine will “feed the next wave of refugees”. Or the example of Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist David Horsey, not known as an anti-immigrant writer or cartoonist – on the contrary –  saying that “today’s much larger crisis could be the first gush of a human tsunami that will swamp the continent”, when referring to Europe’s 2015 refugee crisis.

As Professor Gregory Lee, who coined the term “inundation metaphor” in 2007, argued: “People don’t flood, and people don’t flow. People migrate, they move, they arrive, they pass through, they travel”.

Clearly, this not the first article arguing against the use of these type of aquatic metaphors. There have been many. But it continues to happen, making it pertinent to continue raising it as a problem and urging policy makers, media and experts to refrain from this type of language.

“Wrong for the right reasons”

One of the most glaring recent examples came from the executive director of WFP in an opinion piece for USA today, where he wrote: “The geopolitical impact of famine cannot be understated. Terrorism will surge. Governments will be destabilized. And mass migrations in search of food will inundate secure and prosperous nations”.

As such, it combined in one short paragraph a reference to inundation, equalling mass migration to terrorism and destabilisation as one of the terrible outcomes of famine and making an unsubstantiated statement about how people who are starving from famine will end up in rich countries.

Of course, people suffering from famine usually ran out of all resources and are by no means capable to finance long distance migration to “secure and prosperous” nations; they might be forced to move, but they will generally remain much closer to home, within their countries or regions.

The statement may have been made with the best of intentions, to mobilise funding to prevent famine, and this is by no means meant to criticise the crucial and live saving work that WFP does around the world. But it is “wrong for the right reasons”. Using a “mass migration and terrorism” framing in order to mobilise funding and action, leveraging fear rather than compassion or solidarity, is a risky business and could easily backfire. The same goes for the “financial” argument, when saying that “it is much cheaper to feed people at home”, and that “it will cost 100 times more if they end up as refugees or forced migrants in Europe or North America”. The concern about the human suffering of a famine should be enough incentive to act; a famine is bad enough in itself, full stop.

It also makes one wonder what the other UN agencies forming the UN Network on Migration feel about one member using this fear of migration to mobilise funding, and how this contributes to a “realistic, humane and constructive perception” of migration as agreed in objective 17 of the Global Compact?

Particularly persistent: fear mongering and water metaphors on climate change and migration

Within the migration-climate nexus, using water metaphors, the fear of large numbers of migrants and refugees and unsubstantiated claims about millions of people migrating due to climate change, turns out to be a particularly persistent narrative to mobilise action. Media outlets and politicians often use such “sensational and fear-mongering rhetoric, “asserting that climate change directly and automatically leads to mass migration, and warning, through dehumanising language, about the impending ‘floods’ or ‘waves’ of millions or billions of desperate climate migrants or climate refugees who threaten to drown Europe as they flee an uninhabitable Global South.” Given that floods are actual threats in the context of climate change, there is a sad irony in this discourse, and those working on climate change should know better than to use such language.

In the headline of a Inews article, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson was said to have told the UN Security Council that the “world must cut emissions or face refugees flooding across borders”. In January 2021, 3,000 scientists signed up to a global statement ahead of the Climate Adaptation Summit, saying that unless we step up to address the climate emergency, the results will be “increasing poverty, water shortages, agricultural losses and soaring levels of migration”. In a December 2020 interview, John Kerry, now President Biden’s Special Envoy for Climate, talked about the tens of millions of climate migrants to be expected, the wars that will come from this migration and how the pushback against this migration could lead to genocide, explicitly referring to Rwanda.

Several things are wrong with these types of statements. Dehumanising metaphors are used. Migration is conflated with forced displacement and mentioned in one breath with a range of bad outcomes. And, whether more or less explicit, these type of claims about the millions of climate migrants, are often interpreted as “millions of migrants arriving in rich, western destination countries”, while there is no evidence this would indeed be the case.

As we argued in an earlier paper on climate change and migration, assuming strong climate migration linkages serve different agendas. The result can lead to a distortion of reality and the exaggeration of linkages in the climate/migration nexus by those on various points of the political continuum. “Those seeking to highlight the current climate emergency may feel that stronger linkages between climate change and migration (especially intercontinental migration) serve to prod policymakers into emission reducing action. Meanwhile, those aiming to securitise the migration debate in order to limit asylum and control immigration can use strong climate/migration linkages to encourage greater fortification of borders and more restrictive policies. Others, such as journalists and those working in the displacement sector may not challenge, or may even reinforce, the assumed but unproven links between climate and migration as they help generate powerful headlines and further justify funding”.

Careful language

Addressing the many complex migration challenges, requires balanced approaches, rational analysis, innovation, courage and leadership. And it requires careful language. Dehumanising metaphors and negative framing, whether out of sloppiness, ignorance or for self-promotional or funding purposes should be avoided by all means. A recent good example came from the new Biden administration in the United States. In February 2021, the administration urged Citizenship and Immigration Service officials to use more inclusive terms. Perhaps the most significant and positive shift in direction is to change the term ‘illegal alien’ for ‘undocumented non-citizen’.

Let this be a good example for others to follow.