The Powerful Language of Migration

By Jacopo Colombini (Staff Writer)

On observing recent developments in public discourse regarding migration in Europe (Great Britain and Italy, in particular) it would appear that hostility towards migrants is no longer the prerogative of a xenophobic minority, but has rather become an essential part of political debate. Open accusations that migrants endanger our societies, or abuse our welfare-states, are not novel, but in recent years they have become a permanent feature. The propensity to make such accusations is shared across all major political parties (from left to right) – which have, in discussing these issues, lost their traditional sensitivities/tact. Such discourse is nourished by all kinds of stereotypes. The use of stereotyping and stigmatising labels appears to be once more legitimised, and the 'language of immigration' is slowly 'sliding back into racism'[1]. But what is this 'language of immigration'? Is there a way to talk about migration whilst avoiding any kind of direct or indirect discrimination? While it is easy to recognise the stereotypical inventory of metaphors, such as references to 'invasions', 'flows' or 'waves', commonly used to describe migration[2], in this article I argue that so-called politically-correct terminology can have significant negative consequences on the lives of migrants’.

A routine cause of stigmatization is the progressive association/racialisation of adjectives regarding nationality with different categories or archetypes. For instance, in Italy, to be a “Moroccan” does not mean to be a person native from Morocco, but rather requires that the individual in question be a pedlar, who very often lives in precariousness and marginality. If you sell on the street you are a “marocchino”, it does not matter where you really hail from. Utilising this term is a very common practice that - despite more than twenty-years of public debate about the phenomenon, increasing academic attention and the production of a code of practices that aims to reduce negative representation of the migrants[3] - continues to be followed by journalists and prominent political figures. The Italian Minister of Internal Affairs Angelino Alfano, for instance, still uses the racist label 'vu cumprà' ('wanna buy?') – to denounce the “invasion” of illegal sellers on Italian beaches – without acknowledging the evident racist connotation of it[4].

Which terms should Alfano have used? How should we write/talk about migration?

Ever since I started my academic career I have been interested in the ‘political-correctness’ of the terms I use to discuss the topic. Immigration or migration? Migrant or immigrants? Clearly, this problem doesn’t affect me alone, nor does it only implicate the difficulties I experience when writing in English (my second language). Rather it has been, and continues to be, an issue discussed between colleagues and other practitioners. The IOM's website supplies a table that lists 'key migration terms'[5] and a brief “glossary on migration” that can be downloaded 'to move the international community toward a common language when discussing migration issues' and promote a 'mutual understanding of critical terms' in order to develop 'coordinated responses to the challenges of global migration'[6]. The glossary supplies a long list of terms and definitions, but does not solve my problem.

In defining the term 'immigration' ('a process by which non-nationals move into a country for the purpose of settlement'[7]), for instance, the glossary does not refer to the fact that the term has a 'receiving-countries focus' – which leaves out the perspective of the sending-countries and hides the multi-directional complexity of human mobility. And, through a system of cross-references, it simply presents immigration as interchangeable with terms like migration and emigration.

In my quest for the politically-correct terminology, the term 'migration' ('a population movement of people, whatever its length, composition and causes') and 'migrant' appear to be the obvious answers. Nevertheless, there is not a universally accepted definition of 'migrant'. Initially conceived to define all individuals who, for different reasons, 'freely' decided to move to a different place, the meaning of the word has been gradually extended, in the United Nations' definition, to 'all individuals who have resided in a foreign country for more than one year irrespective of the causes'[8]. This evidences a focus on temporality that excludes tourists and businesspersons, but that still allows exceptions such as seasonal farm-workers. Thus, in order to reduce possible difficulties or discrimination the term has been subjected to a progressive widening, yet some problems persist. First, by making reasons for migration a secondary aspect, the term undermines the important diversity of this category of people[9]. Second, the common practice of pairing-off the term with other adjectives, which remind us of the different or even 'subordinate' status of the persons on the move, undermines the words utility. Hence we often read of 'illegal', 'clandestine', 'irregular' or 'undocumented' migrants. In this list the term 'irregular' is still more preferable than 'illegal' because it does not have a criminal connotation[10].

Is knowing, and avoiding, this sufficient to be politically-correct?

No, it is not enough. We should keep in mind the role of words in perpetrating certain power relations. If we reflect again on the very broad definition of 'migrant', what is the difference between this term and the word 'foreigner'? The term 'foreigner' can be objective in defining an individual who does not possess the passport of the hosting nation, while the word 'migrant' has ideological consequences. How long is an individual defined as a migrant? For all of his/her life? Is there a way to 'heal' and to be considered as such no more? How come this condition is often handed on from father to son, creating the illogical definition of 'first or second generation migrant'? How can a person be a migrant despite being born in, and never leaving, a country? Come from a different country is not reason enough to be defined as a migrant. In Italy for example,  Englishmen, Frenchmen, Americans etc. are not considered to be migrants at all, and a significantly sized group of them will never be categorised as an ethnic minority. So, what makes Albanians, Moroccans, Romanians etc. different? What makes them migrants?

To be 'recognized' as a migrant it is necessary to be poor and needy, there is no such thing as a rich migrant[11].Being a migrant becomes a cultural category, an identity that goes beyond time and space, it is not related to the mere act of moving. The media, politicians, bureaucrats etc. enforce the migrant stereotype, perpetrating his/her eternal diversity in order to create a 'constitutive' other necessary to redefine a national identity in crisis. The migration trajectories, the nationalities and the places involved has often changed, but the category of 'other' is always actual. What can we do, as students and researchers to avoid such dynamics? I do not have a clear solution, but I think that acknowledging the existence of power relations is a good start, any other attempt to change this situation will necessarily have to call into question the very same notion of nation and consequently the existence of concepts such as migrant and foreigner.