Why the language we use to talk about refugees matters

By Stefan Simanowitz, Amnesty International

George Orwell’s dystopian novel, 1984, opens with Winston Smith writing in his diary about a film he has seen. “One very good one of a ship full of refugees being bombed somewhere in the Mediterranean,” he writes. “Audience much amused by shots of a great huge fat man trying to swim away with a helicopter after him, first you saw him wallowing along in the water like a porpoise, then you saw him through the helicopters gunsights, then he was full of holes and the sea round him turned pink and he sank as suddenly as though the holes had let in the water.”

First you saw the man wallowing in the water like a porpoise. Then you saw him through the helicopters gunsights. Then he was full of holes and the sea round him turned pink
Winston Smith, 1984 (by George Orwell)

This week, a video emerged of a Greek coastguard ship apparently trying to capsize a boat full of refugees at sea, and of the coastguard firing into the sea near their dingy.

This is not Oceania in 1984. This is Europe in 2020.

The incident reportedly took place off the Turkish coast on Monday. It came amid the growing standoff between Turkey and the European Union which has followed President Erdogan’s decision to allow refugees and migrants to head towards Turkey’s EU land and sea borders with Greece and Bulgaria.

And like the audience in Orwell’s cinema, some people were “much amused.” One notorious right-wing commentator tweeted the video with the caption: “Love me a bit of Greek coastguard. Come on you wondrous people of Greece. Thighs oiled. Boots strapped. Rage against the invasion.”

This week, a video emerged of a Greek coastguard ship apparently trying to capsize a boat full of refugees, and of the coastguard firing into the sea near their dingy
Stefan Simanowitz, Amnesty International

This language of invasion has been repeated in headlines around the world as newspapers reported how Greece was being “besieged” by “swarms” or “floods” of migrants. Even the New York Times carried a photo caption on Tuesday stating that “Greek authorities have been using tear gas and rubber bullets to repel the hordes.”

Taking the military analogy a step further, a Greek government spokesman, Stelios Petsas, described the country as facing an “asymmetric threat” to its security and announced that Athens had sent gunships to its eastern Aegean islands.

This language of invasion has become increasingly mainstream as it trips off the tongue of populist political leaders around the world. These populists stoke xenophobia and dangerous nationalism to gain and retain power, erecting fences and walls as physical embodiments of their prejudice.

This language of invasion has become increasingly mainstream as it trips off the tongue of populist political leaders
Stefan Simanowitz, Amnesty International

As Filippo Grandi, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, recently observed, such language is not only profoundly wrong but also extremely dangerous. “It is this type of language that stigmatizes refugees, migrants and other people on the move, that gives legitimacy to a discourse of racism, hatred, and xenophobia,” he said.

On the Greek island of Lesvos, off whose shores a young boy drowned on Monday, a small group of islanders have blocked refugee boats from docking. There have been reports that doctors, journalists and aid workers have been violently attacked by vigilantes. This week the NGO Médecins Sans Frontières was forced to suspend activities for two days due to the increased tension on the island.

Increased frustrations in Greece stem from failures in the European asylum system and the fact that there is no system to share responsibility for asylum seekers among European states. As a result, coastal countries - Italy, Greece, Malta - have been largely left to deal with the situation. Attempts by the EU Parliament to reform the Dublin Rules have been blocked by a few countries.

This type of language stigmatizes refugees, migrants and other people on the move, that gives legitimacy to a discourse of racism, hatred, and xenophobia
Filippo Grandi, UNHCR

Rather than attempting to fix this broken system which is failing both frontline EU states and people seeking safety, Europe’s mainstream leaders are avoiding it. This has created a vacuum which populists have eagerly filled.

If left unchallenged, they will frame the conversation and the language we use through fear-mongering and the weaponization of prejudice.

But rather than keep “dark forces” in abeyance, the fortress that Europe is building around itself, is increasingly leaving us trapped in a populist prison of fear.

Seventy years after the publication of 1984, many aspects of Orwell’s vision – from omnipresent mass surveillance to the creeping influence of Newspeak – have become commonplace. We must act to ensure that our treatment of refugees fleeing war and destitution does not also become dystopian.

This article first appeared here in Newsweek.