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Science and Semantics: Focus on Immigration

Current Affairs, Louis Nerurkar

Science and Semantics: Focus on Immigration

Photo LA(PHOT) Jay Allen ©. Royal Navy Media Archive. Used with permission under Creative Commons license.

By Louis Nerurkar:

In recent months the media has repeatedly discussed the waves of “economic migrants” entering Europe as they attempt to flee from the conflicts that have displaced them. In this context the word economic is often used to imply that the decision to journey to the United Kingdom was taken with the sole purpose of acquiring increased income and exploiting the welfare systems that exist across much of Europe.

In the American national comorbidity survey those exposed to traumas such as rape, molestation, physical attack or abuse and combat were found to have lifetime prevalence of PTSD that exceeds 50% in some cases1. For those fleeing conflicts, particularly in the Middle East at this time, such traumas are an inescapable reality of the world they are trying to escape from. While estimates of PTSD within the resettled refugee population vary, rates are considerably higher than in the general population2.

A preliminary study recently published in Molecular Psychiatry3 assessed the psychological wellbeing of a group of adult migrants, from a variety of countries, ranging from 17 to 48 years. While the sample size was small (n=23) over 50% of those assessed had faced multiple life events that could be considered traumatic, with another 13% having experienced war and torture. Among this population 43.5% could be given a formal diagnosis of PTSD, similar to a study of Sudanese nationals and refugees living in Uganda where nearly 50% of Sudanese migrants could be diagnosed with PTSD and many of those surveyed had experienced multiple traumatic events4.

Once we have established that those who come to our borders have often faced severe and multiple traumas, and that many will have psychological disorders related to their experiences, describing these people as “economic migrants” becomes callous, if not cruel,  and demonstrates a worrying lack of compassion for other human beings.

Scientists have a role to disseminate and promote information we generate ourselves and/or acquire from others, to enable society to make informed decisions about the directions it wishes to take and the policies and ideals it wishes to act upon. Critical appraisal of language that is used is important, as specific choices of words or phrases can convey additional meaning, and influence decision making. Using phrases, such as “economic migrants”, to describe those fleeing from conflicts, is misrepresentative with limited basis in fact. An economic migrant is generally understood to be one who has chosen to migrate primarily to improve their standard of living, when many currently seeking refuge are in fact migrating to save their own lives.

The use of such inaccurate and pejorative terms encourages bias, skews opinion and prevents fair and balanced debate while ignoring the physical and psychological trauma that many refugees have endured.

There are, of course, economic and cultural challenges associated with immigration which we, as a society, must consider. However this should not prevent us from engaging in open-minded debate, where empty rhetoric with no empirical basis cannot find a home. As scientists we must persuade the media to report openly and accurately on the trauma that many migrants have faced and the very real implications it has on their welfare and psychological wellbeing. We should not require pictures of drowned toddlers to remind us of the humanity of others.

The evidence is out there that many of those who seek refuge within Europe and the UK are escaping experiences we would not wish upon our worst enemies. Their physical and mental health is damaged due to events experienced both at home and during the journeys made to reach our shores. The least we should do is give every individual enough respect to view their case with open eyes, free from a rhetoric of fear and mistrust and to engage in an open debate as to how we can best aid those who have suffered in a way that works for both them and the society they are entering.

  1. http://archpsyc.jamanetwork.com/article.aspx?articleid=497313
  2. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15823380
  3. http://www.nature.com/mp/journal/v20/n12/full/mp2015164a.html
  4. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2141616/

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