Written by Isabelle Thompson
On the 18th of August, a refugee rescue mission funded by Banksy carried over 200 passengers across the Mediterranean Sea. There have been long disputes into whether wealthy Western countries should embrace the passing of refugees from struggling countries or deny refugees because their own countries are already ‘too full’. Governments turning a blind eye to this grave situation are just as complicit as those actively denying help to those in dire need of it. Alongside these discussions is the importance of language when describing such persons. The labelling of who is a ‘migrant’ or a ‘refugee’ is not new nor separated from politics; it is the basis for a complex range of dynamics, defining who is worthy of support and who is not.
The label of ‘refugee’ implies people fleeing from conflict, whereas ‘migrant’ describes people making an active decision to seek a better economic situation. Such labels then frame perceptions towards those displaced individuals and steer public opinion on how countries should react to this crisis. Interviews have shown that in most cases, refugees would rather stay in their own home than move to a strange country with a new language and new customs they have not had time to prepare for. The negative labels used to describe ‘migrants’ are used as part of a dehumanising process, forming a foundation for humanitarian disasters and neglect.
The Louise Michel, a yacht funded by Banksy, set sail from a port in Spain to rescue refugees travelling from Libya. The bright pink boat depicted an iconic painting of a girl in a life vest holding onto a heart shaped buoy to stop it from blowing away; signifying how asylum seekers have such a small chance at safety that when it arises, they do not let go. The Louise Michel went forth in secrecy to avoid being intercepted, revealing the current climate towards refugee rescue missions; the passengers knew they would be unwelcome before they even left their homeland.
Despite the passengers of the Louise Michel falling under the definition of refugees, the passengers have regularly been referred to as “migrants” in key news sources including The Guardian, BBC News and The Independent. This rhetoric is problematic for several reasons, as it implies the boat passengers attempt this perilous and sometimes fatal journey out of choice rather than desperation. Conversations with the passengers revealed this was not the case. Many of the refugees were forced to seek safety as they fear for their lives and those of their children due to the social and political instability of their home country: Libya. According to the BBC, Libya is currently a source of “international tension” explaining why people are trying to move elsewhere.
The reality of countries deliberately ignoring the distress calls from “migrants” on the Louise Michel shows the extent to which our society is damaged. Until the crew announced one passenger was dead from extensive overcrowding, no one intervened. Unfortunately, this is not an isolated case, and such neglect has re-occurred again and again. In 2020 alone, it is estimated that over 500 refugees and migrants have died in the Mediterranean Sea alone. This should not be happening at the borders of Europe. The use of labels is selective to evoke different emotions by distinguishing the deserving from those who are considered less deserving and potentially a threat. As a society, we need to ask ourselves: when was it decided that people immigrating from Germany to the UK are valued, but not people immigrating from Libya or Syria?
Thankfully, an Italian coastguard has now retrieved the refugees from Banksy’s boat (as of 29th August, The Telegraph) by transferring the passengers into smaller vessels.
Across Europe, there are millions of people living in constant fear and stress. As a continent we should not be threatened by refugees or migrants. Europe should assist those who are less fortunate and welcome people from other places with open arms. Ultimately, what must be reinforced is that regardless of being labelled a ‘migrant’ or ‘refugee’, we are all human beings.