Speaking about Migration

Migration is about PEOPLE moving and crossing borders in search of work, opportunity, education, adventure, love, friendship, family and new experiences. Too often in the media and in public discourse migration is about border control, migrants stealing jobs, migrants being smuggled or trafficked or sneaking through checkpoints, and migrant communities who refuse to assimilate.

Speaking about migration can promote either positive dialogue and discussion or negative discriminatory perceptions and attitudes. The Mekong Migration Network provides the following guidelines for media, policy makers, and other stakeholders – highlighting a list of TERMS to AVOID when covering migration topics – in an aim to promote just, fair and inclusive attitudes towards migration and migrants within Mekong governments and communities.

Terms to Avoid:

1. Illegal migrant / illegal migration: often used to describe people who do not have the correct documents and visas required by the countries they may have left or entered. Using this term however promotes the idea that migrants are illegal, criminal, and not to be trusted. Migrants who do not have the correct documents are not illegal people; they simply do not have legal documents.

CONSIDER USING: undocumented migrant / irregular migration

“Chou Bun Eng, who chairs the secretariat of the Anti-Women and Children Trafficking Commission [Cambodia] […] urged against assuming that returned workers were “illegal” workers, suggesting the terms “irregular” or “undocumented” instead.”

[Source: Calls for re-evaluation of short-term workers, Phnom Penh Post]

2. Boat People: is a negative term used to describe people who migrate to other countries by sea routes and are generally seeking safe refuge. This is a politically charged term which is often used in a derogatory way to discriminate against people who travel by boat, and is associated with images of people smugglers, terrorists, and illegal activity.

CONSIDER USING: Asylum seekers / undocumented migrants / irregular migration

3. Alien: is a term that is used within the legal systems of some Mekong countries to describe non-citizens who are travelling or working in the country. This term creates a negative image of strange and dangerous creatures who do not belong in our world or societies.

CONSIDER USING: migrant / migrant worker

4. Unskilled /Skilled Worker: refers to a judgment-laden categorization made by governments that conceptualizes certain types of work as requiring skills and qualifications and others as not. The workers who are deemed ‘skilled’ often have greater opportunities to migrate for work because they are in greater demand by governments.

CONSIDER USING: Informal sector worker / informal work

5. Prostitute: These words carry a lot of stigma and say nothing about people as workers.

CONSIDER USING: Sex workers or entertainment workers / migrant sex workers

6. Floods of migrants: migrants are people and they move to migrate. But words associated with the destruction by flows of water are often used to describe the movement of migrants, thus creating fear and distrust of migrants.

CONSIDER USING: the movement of migrants

7. Migrants flocked to…: Migrants are people and they move to migrate. Flock refers to animals not people and should thus not be used to talk about the movement of people.

CONSIDER USING: migrants moved to…

8. Lured into (as in “lured into prostitution”): Common usage of this term implies that someone (usually a woman or a girl) was tricked into doing something against their will. By using this term, there is an implication that the person is naïve, or easily tricked, and has been coerced or deceived into doing something undesirable or immoral.

While MMN recognizes that there are cases where people are recruited though the use of deception to do something they would not have otherwise done, we urge care when using such language. A ‘lure’ is a hook used to catch fish. People are not fish. It is important to avoid generalizing that all workers who are in exploitative working conditions or sectors, are naïve victims who have been “lured into” doing the work.

CONSIDER USING: recruited dishonestly / recruited through use of deception

9. Slave: is a term that historically has been used to describe someone who is wholly subject to, or under domination or influence of, another person. It is often used to denote ownership. More recently, it has been used to describe someone who works in exploitative conditions for little or no return. While it is true that many workers experience serious exploitation, including forced labour that may be described as “working with slavery-like conditions,” MMN advocates the avoidance of attaching such a label to individuals, except for cases where workers describe themselves as such.

CONSIDER USING: Working in slavery-like conditions / Working in exploitative labour conditions / Worker enduring hardship / Worker denied his/her rights

GENERAL MEDIA COVERAGE: Accurate and balanced reporting on migration in the media is essential to challenge racism and promote informed public debate and perceptions of migration. Media reports should avoid using the terms above as well as:

• Avoid sensationalized headlines that promote fear and alarm (e.g. “migrant influx threatens jobs”)
• Avoid negative stereotypes of migrants in photos, text and multimedia( e.g. migrants as poor, dirty, desperate, illegal)
• Ensure data on migration is accurate, up to date, and from credible sources
• Ensure that if the article needs to make specific reference to the type of migration that the correct terminology is used in smuggling, trafficking, etc. Avoid using trafficking just to gain readership or sensationalise the story.
• Include the perceptions, opinions and experience of migrants themselves in media reports

For further information see the newly launched book: Speaking of Migration: Mekong Vocabulary on Migration which includes 117 terms and definitions in 6 Mekong languages http://www.mekongmigration.org/vocab.