Migration Narratives: The SHRAM Blog

Travelling terms: The semantics of migration discourse

migrant crisis


The world has been forced to take notice of the plight of migrants stranded in the Mediterranean and Andaman Seas. Al Jazeera recently announced its decision to stop using the word ‘migrant’ in its reportage of the refugee crisis in the Mediterranean. They insist that “The umbrella term migrant is no longer fit for purpose when it comes to describing the horror unfolding in the Mediterranean. It has evolved from its dictionary definitions into a tool that dehumanises and distances, a blunt pejorative.” Since then, many influential voices have entered the debate, to argue the semantics of mobility.

Migrant is a word that defines an individual by virtue of movement. A migrant is simply one who has moved. Al Jazeera, and many others argue that this word and its definition are not enough: the context of the movement is what should be definitive. They argue that the word refugee acknowledges the fact that these migrants have been driven out of their countries; and that ‘migrant deaths’ becomes an easy catchall phrase which strips these people of their humanity. Rather, using the word refugee takes cognizance of the forced nature of their movement.

Separating refugees from economic migrants, while important, must not be done in a manner that aggravates the dichotomy of economic migrants as ‘job thieves’ and refugees as helpless. As Jørgen Carling points out, “The distinction between refugees and other migrants is often couched in terms of ‘having to move’ versus ‘choosing to move’…. All prospective migrants face a mix of opportunities and constraints, and make decisions that reflect multi-faceted considerations. What differs is the nature of this mix; for some, the choices are few and frightening.”

Refugees, while driven out from their homes forcibly, demonstrate great resourcefulness in surviving the odds they face. They must not be reduced to helplessness, and the conversation around them must focus not on their abjectness but also on what drives them away and how they respond, adapt, and what they very often bring to the table in their places of residence.

Renouncing the word migrant is to limit it to the meaning that the European migrant crisis has bestowed on it—migrants live and move across the entire globe in multiple forms; and have since time immemorial. The word migrant is not at fault, it is the European, and the international media, and the virulent exclusionary rhetoric that feeds into the attitudes in question. Seeking to strike out the word migrant from public imagination rather than address the dichotomies this debate throws up, is a blinkered solution to a complex problem.

I would argue that continuing to use the word migrant, in fact, presents us with an opportunity to look at migration from a rights perspective, and at the intersection of multiple factors which account for migrants’ agency and resourcefulness without discounting the circumstances their choices arise from. Asylum seekers and helpless refugees are not the only ones who ‘deserve’ to be ‘let in’.

Weiner asks: “In a world of global inequalities, persecution, and violence, are states ethically obligated to open their borders as wide as is economically feasible and politically acceptable to their citizens? Is migration a basic human right or are the claims of outsiders superseded by the principle of national sovereignty that the moral obligation of states is to do the best for their own citizens?” In other words; there is always a contradiction between the right of an individual to move; and the right of a nation to regulate its borders. The crisis of migration reflects an anxiety fundamental to the very definition of a nation: its borders and limits, which are so vital to its very existence and meaning, are being threatened. The term migrant by virtue of its broad scope across peoples, contexts and motivations, threatens the narrow limits by which borders are regulated and identities are defined. By defining these people only as refugees, we are escaping any engagement with questioning borders and the hostility that comes with their policing and painting these people purely as victims—and thus allowed to accept the benevolence of host states.

Internal migrants in India face many of the same problems refugees do, and are dismissed with similar hostility as interlopers and aliens. They migrate for a wide spectrum of reasons: escaping extreme poverty, searching for livelihood opportunities, or even to escape oppressive social hierarchies. But because of the rural-urban development bias, many are not ‘forced’ out in the purest sense of the term, they migrate for better education, higher education, a better quality of life, and this aspiration reflects the need to seriously address regional inequalities, rather than a ‘problem’ of exodus from villages that must be halted at all costs.

A popular news website recently conducted a social experiment: they posted Nazi propaganda in the comments section of news articles about migrants, replacing the word ‘Jew’, with ‘migrant’. They received an overwhelmingly positive response: with their comments being ‘upvoted’ nearly 480 times, as opposed to 16 negative votes. They realise; “It seems the migration debate has evolved to a place where even certified hate speech can pass for popular political opinion”.

Migrants already living in host countries, who would not fall within Al Jazeera’s category of refugees, are at the receiving end of the same discourse that these refugees are. Emphasizing a need to separate them from the refugees is in many ways, abandoning them to their fate.

Judith Vonberg insists, “The term migrant ought to be accepted as a neutral descriptor which covers the situation of everyone who migrates, whether in exercise of a positive right as a citizen through to the desperate search for a safe haven.  When we need to be more specific, ‘refugee’ and ‘asylum’ provide more of the detail of the phenomenon that must be understood.” The horrors of the migrant crisis have also brought the hostility and discrimination most migrants face to the fore. It is in this broader climate of hostility and exclusion that boatloads of people are dying, and immigration debates are becoming more violent. Using the word refugee will serve only to limit and narrow the conversation.


Also read:

People on the Move: Handbook of Selected Terms and Concepts: a useful primer on UN- recognized terminology for mobile individuals and populations: 

Radhika M. Chakraborty

Radhika M. Chakraborty

Radhika M Chakraborty has completed a degree in English Literature from Delhi University and a Master's degree in Women's Studies from the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai. Her research interests include gender and migration, diasporas, Partition, internal displacement and Sindhi culture.
Radhika M. Chakraborty

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