The mass movement of migrants and refugees is neither primarily nor originally a European crisis.
It is a crisis in the home countries of men, women and children fleeing violence, corruption, oppression, poverty and joblessness.
Thomas Klammt, coordinator of international churches for the German Baptist Union, emphasized this point during a recent video interview with EthicsDaily.com media producer Cliff Vaughn.
Definitions of the peoples moving into Europe vary among organizations, governments and media outlets.
Some use “migrant” as an umbrella term describing anyone who moves from one place to another, with most major media outlets using the term, “migrant crisis,” to describe the current mass movement of people.
Distinctions are then made based on the reason for the migration: refugees, internally displaced persons, economic migrants and so on.
The Associated Press released guidance on proper terminology, noting that “it’s very difficult to find one word to describe everyone” and that while “migrants” might be the most inclusive description it can be seen as “an unfeeling term.”
Therefore, they have advised reporters “to be as specific as possible in their stories, determining as many details as they can about a given group and reflecting that in the terms they use.”
Other organizations, such as the United Nations’ refugee agency (UNHCR), make a clear distinction between migrants and refugees.
“Refugees are persons fleeing armed conflict or persecution,” UNHCR explained, while “migrants choose to move not because of a direct threat of persecution or death, but mainly to improve their lives by finding work, or in some cases for education, family reunion or other reasons.”
As this global movement of peoples is the largest since World War II, there are both migrants and refugees involved (to use UNHCR’s distinctions).
Yet, to emphasize economics or other factors as leading causes of the current crisis, as some public figures and government leaders have done, is to misconstrue the situation.
Most people coming to Europe know that the journey, perilous and deadly though it may be, offers more hope for staying alive long-term than remaining in their country of origin.
Klammt, in an additional segment of his EthicsDaily.com interview, emphasized this point.
“Most of those people who are coming are really refugees from wars, civil wars or dictatorship countries,” Klammt said.
He then explained that any of the economic migrants coming from Eastern Europe were being encouraged to return to their home countries to make space for war refugees.
When discussing the current global movement of people, the most apt and inclusive term might be “migrant-refugee crisis,” with an emphasis on refugee.
Words matter but more than accurate terminology is needed to address the growing crisis – both short-term and long-term initiatives are required.
In the immediate, global leaders must more quickly and widely welcome refugees by providing temporary asylum, housing and other forms of humanitarian aid, even as discussions about a more equitable distribution of refugees continues.
For example, the U.S. has provided around $4 million to aid Syrian refugees,with an additional $419 million in aid pledged by the U.S. yesterday, but has accepted only 1,500 Syrians to date.
President Obama announced that he would work to accept an additional 10,000 refugees, but this takes time to implement and will hardly make a ripple in the millions of global persons seeking refuge.
While immediate steps are vital, longer-term initiatives also must be considered. Without addressing underlying causes of the crisis, the refugee population will continue to expand.
A sustainable response requires a broader welcome to refugees coupled with an increase in humanitarian aid, heightened peacemaking efforts and more substantive, better funded development initiatives within the countries from which refugees originate.
That said, as others have emphasized, it is unacceptable for governments to focus on addressing “root causes” as a means of avoiding responsibility for providing immediate aid to refugees.
One initiative cannot be substituted for the other. Both are essential.
The United Nations’ Sustainable Development Summit – to be held Sept. 25 – 27 to discuss and formally vote on its 17 proposed Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) – is of vital importance in this “both-and” approach.
These goals “are comprehensive and address the social, economic and environmental dimensions of sustainable development in an integrated way, according to the U.N., which will build on progress made in pursuing the Millennium Development Goals with a focus on sustainability.
The goals seek to address issues that are contributing factors to the present massive global movement of people – poverty, hunger, healthcare, education, access to clean water, infrastructure, pursuing peaceful and inclusive societies, and climate change impacts.
Many in the current flow of people are fleeing conflict. Poverty, hunger, inequality and oppression are root causes of several ongoing conflicts contributing to the high volume of refugees.
People of faith should continue calling attention to and working to address the plight of refugees.
But they must also emphasize the importance of these U.N. goals, urging global leaders to take active steps to engage the SDGs.
Caring for the immediate needs of refugees is vital, but the global response must address underlying causes, otherwise we will see the present crisis eventually wane only to find new expressions in the not-so-distant future.
A robust support of the SDGs by governments, nongovernmental organizations, community institutions (including local churches) and individuals is a practical, essential and tangible way to respond.