Samira Ahmed: Hello and welcome to Newswatch with me, Samira Ahmed. How should BBC journalists describe people crossing the English Channel in small boats? Asylum seekers, refugees, illegal migrants?
Samira Ahmed: When news of Thursday's two by-election results came in, Boris Johnson was in Rwanda, and hanging over his trip, there was the government's controversial plan to send asylum seekers to that country. That term 'asylum seekers', along with 'refugees', is the most common one being used around this issue on the BBC, as you can hear in these two recent reports.
BBC reporter: It's a hotel in Kigali like many others. Inside, one of the rooms made up and ready to receive their unwilling guests - refugees forcibly removed from the UK.
BBC reporter: The government's policy to remove asylum seekers to east Africa is on hold, but the Home Secretary this lunchtime insisted it will happen.
Samira Ahmed: But some Newswatch viewers aren't happy with the use of those terms. Sue Crooks wrote:
Sue Crooks: I am annoyed by your manipulation by language in news programmes. 'Refugees' are those fleeing for their lives. 'Asylum seekers' are those identified as at risk because of their views. 'Economic migrants' are those who seek to improve their lives by migration. 'Illegal immigration' is, as it states, illegal. Please don't insult the viewers by using the wrong label to influence sympathy.
Samira Ahmed: Meanwhile, Astrid Jillings had a different point to make:
Astrid Jillings: Before me knew better we referred to people with a disability as 'handicapped'. We now know better and use inclusive language. I was reminded of this in the past few days. 'Asylum seekers' and 'migrants' are temporary terms and do not reflect the whole identity of people that have left their homes behind to start a new life in a different country. It concerns me that some people don't view these people as individuals. My request to the BBC is to set an example by referring to these people as 'people' as by using more inclusive terms like 'people seeking asylum' or 'people that have migrated', etc.
Samira Ahmed: Well, someone who's been thinking about the use of language in this context is Dominic Casciani, who's the BBC's home and legal correspondent. Thank you for coming on Newswatch. How should we describe these people crossing the Channel?
Dominic Casciani: Well, Samira, this is really complicated because the law is about to change, which is going to, to be frank, completely muddy the waters here about the language. Now, the basic fact is claiming asylum when you're saying you're a refugee in need of protection is not a crime. That's slightly complicated by what's happening at the Channel at the moment where you can have a situation where somebody is crossing because they're an economic migrant - they're effectively seeking to better themselves, you know, they basically want to improve their life in some shape or form - they haven't necessarily got a claim on asylum. Now, in that context, if they haven't already got a visa or permission to enter the UK, technically speaking, you could say they're an illegal migrant because they're arriving without authorisation. To complicate matters further, you can then have an asylum seeker, someone who sourced asylum elsewhere in Europe on their way to the UK. I've spoken to people in the past who've claimed asylum in Germany, in Sweden, in places like this, and then decided to come to the UK. So they have some kind of refugee claim - or say they do - but then they've decided to come to the UK to claim asylum here. Now, in that context, are they an asylum seeker or someone who's basically, effectively, 'asylum shopping', to use language which is deployed by some, looking for a better life? That's quite a complicated mix to start getting your head around, so I can understand how the audience can be a little bit confused by some of this.
Samira Ahmed: So, given that some people, certainly viewers are saying this, who didn't claim asylum in the first safe country or did, and then have chosen to move, some viewers are saying they're illegal migrants. Does the BBC ever use that term?
Dominic Casciani: Well, not necessarily in that context. But let me talk to you about something which is about to happen. This coming Tuesday, the law changes, and technically speaking, there could be people after Tuesday who cross the Channel who could be classed as an illegal asylum seeker because they didn't already have entry clearance, to use the jargon - didn't have permission from the Home Secretary to arrive in the UK. Now, what that means is from the middle of next week, if ministers start using phrases like 'illegal asylum seeker', well, it will depend on the context, because technically, you can have people who are coming in, seeking asylum, and then they're taken to court for basically breaking the criminal law there because the accusation would be that they didn't have any good reason to come because they could have claimed asylum elsewhere or there may be some other reason. So, it's getting more and more complicated, this area of law here.
Samira Ahmed: How far, then, is it ever appropriate to use the term 'refugee' for the people we're talking about coming across the Channel?
Dominic Casciani: I think the term 'refugee' has to be used in very, very specific circumstances. Now, from my perspective, I see this as a legal definition in as much as somebody is not a refugee in my reporting until they have refugee status, and what that means is they've claimed asylum, they've been given some kind of - they've been given status by the Home Office that's recognised they have a need for protection, and, therefore, they are protected by the UK and settled in the UK with that status. At that point, in law, they are a refugee, they have a right to remain in the UK. So, when I'm reporting this issue, I will talk about asylum seekers, I will talk about migrants, but the word 'refugee', I'll try to reserve that for that very, very specific category of people who've got status. When we're interviewing people, so, for instance, you can be talking to refugee charities or, for instance, like, campaigners or people who, for instance, are working with asylum seekers and migrants along the English Channel on the French side of the coast, they will very often say in quotes to us in clips, "We're supporting "these refugees, don't criminalise these refugees." We have to accept that that's their opinion, that all these people are refugees and we have to obviously, you know, reflect what they're saying, but we have to be very, very careful to make sure that that language is their language rather than ours, so there's that difference there.
Samira Ahmed: Now, one of the viewers we heard from was saying we should use the term 'people' with an added-on description, people claiming asylum, for example. What do you think?
Dominic Casciani: Yeah, look, it's not unreasonable, but it's just that some of this is about terminology, around snappy language in news, you know. News is supposed to be digested fairly quickly, so very often we will go to shorthand. So I take the point, there is this issue about whether or not you just basically categorise people in one particular way forever. I mean, we've had this thing around the disabled. We very, very rarely see that kind of language now, 'the disabled'. We talk about people with disabilities.
Samira Ahmed: Or people using wheelchairs.
Dominic Casciani: Or people using wheelchairs. So, yeah, you've got to be careful not to dehumanise people, you know, because if you dehumanise people, then you're actually making it very - a lot harder actually for the audience to understand the motivation of the person behind it.
Samira Ahmed: Dominic Casciani, thank you so much.
Dominic Casciani: Thanks.
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