Welcome to Eureka Street

back to site


Europe's more humane approach to on-water matters

  • 24 April 2015

More than 800 people died at sea whilst migrating from Libya to Italy’s shores last week. The horror has been described in the media as ‘Europe’s Shame’, with inadequate migration processes and maritime rescue operations being blamed for this unnecessary loss of life.

What struck me watching the media coverage from afar were the simple differences between the language employed in Europe versus the language Australia uses to talk about borders, migrants, and deaths at sea.

The words we have become accustomed to using regarding migration are propagandist in nature: by containing legal and moral judgement, they serve a political agenda.

‘Stop the boats’, despite containing the seeds of one of the world’s most brutal border regimes has been sold as some kind of humane appeal to ‘saving lives at sea’. (Australia is the only nation in the world to detain migrants who arrive without visas, and the only country to explicitly prohibit genuine refugees from settling). But Volker Turk, the UNHCR's director of international protection, describes the situation in the Mediterranean differently:

If you look at some of the displacement numbers, we are talking about a global displacement crisis that is playing out at the doorsteps of Europe. It is clear, then, that the European political leadership will need to provide the appropriate response, which is built on the fundamental European values of human rights and human dignity.

Which translates not into policies of deterrence that endanger, imprison, and limit the freedom of migrants, but supporting maritime rescue operations, improving immigration processes.

‘Boat people’ is simplistic and offensive; ‘queue jumper’ inaccurate and moralising; and even the term ‘asylum seeker’ has become politically complicit.

Using the term ‘asylum seeker’ over ‘migrant’ has become a political necessity, a defence against the barbarism of our border policy. The coverage of the Mediterranean boat tragedy described the victims and survivors simply as ‘migrants’. This is an open, rather than closed, description of a person on a boat crossing borders. Certainly some of the people on board would have sought asylum on Italian shores, but others may not have. Others may have become undocumented migrants, people fleeing man-made disasters that fall outside the legal parameters of seeking asylum.

In defending the lives and dignity of people moving across borders perilously, we have been forced to describe every boat migrant as an ‘asylum seeker’, but in doing so, we have effectively defended a very narrow understanding of rights and borders. By falling on this