For Black History Month, I wrote about Maya Angelou and what her work means to me for Migrant Voice.
Alongside the usual froth over immigration figures blasting through the government’s nonsensical immigration target – to the extent that immigration figures are at their highest since 2005 – there’s a debate about what to call the people knocking at Europe’s door seeking sanctuary and a new life. Migrants or refugees? People?
First things first.
Britain’s immigration figures are high because the economy is recovering well (or at least better than our neighbours with the exception of perhaps Germany) and even if inequality is still a major problem – it’s a big draw for people. But immigrants are also part of the reason that Britain has this recovery.
“It is not a message that you will hear from many, if any, mainstream politicians but, as the government’s own Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) has pointed out, mass migration has been a key factor fuelling Britain’s economic recovery.” – The Guardian, 27 August 2015.
And despite the government’s best efforts to foster a hostile environment for migrants, the world continues to turn, even if community relations are somewhat the poorer for the divisive rhetoric and measures. Even business says that the immigration cap is damaging for the economy. Nevertheless, this year will see yet another immigration bill tabled, hot on the heels of last year’s. I am not looking forward to seeing what fresh nonsense is put on the table and I can only salute those like Migrant Rights Network, Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants and Migrant Voice are doing to lobby for change.
(Interestingly, it also shows that Iain Duncan Smith’s welfare vandalism is primarily ideological. The recovery* is not happening because of punitive welfare sanctions, the bedroom tax or harassing the sick and disabled.)
Moving on from that topic before I break something…
Language matters. Al Jazeera was lauded for its stance on using the word “migrant” to describe the people crossing the Mediterranean. After all, it reasoned, the vast majority are asylum seekers. UNHCR figures show an estimated 293,035 people crossed the Mediterranean so far this year.
2,440 were lost at sea.
The top 5 country nationalities were Syrian (43%), Afghan (12%), Eritrea (10%), Nigeria (5%), Somalia (3%) and other (27%).
Al Jazeera correctly identified that the word “migrant” is tainted:
“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.”
Their decision prompted a lot of soul searching at the Independent, Channel 4 News and others news outlets. However, campaigning organisations, like the Refugee and Migrant Forum of East London (RAMFEL), Migrant Voice and Migrant Rights Network say that we should reclaim the word.
“By rejecting the term and using ‘refugee’ instead as a means of arousing the empathy and compassion we should be feeling towards these people, Al Jazeera gives credence to the illiberal voices telling us that migrants are not worthy of our compassion.” – Judith Vonberg, Migrant Rights Network.
I have been thinking about this. Language is not fixed and words are not confined to their dictionary definitions. We act upon language, conferring upon it depth and meaning. There is no doubt that migrant, perhaps as it’s so close to the word immigrant, is seen as a dirty word. Interestingly, it’s a word we use for Black and Brown people, not White people, who are tourists or expats. Let’s not pretend that has nothing to do with why this word, like the people it describes, is considered so problematic.
Migrants don’t just move countries. I have friends in London from Scotland, Wales, Leeds, Ireland. They’re migrants. Just like my friends from Uganda, Canada, Zimbabwe and Nigeria. If you move, you’re a migrant. And it’s a human enterprise to move in search of safety, or a better life. When it comes to the people crossing the Mediterranean, some are fleeing for their lives from war; others are fleeing poverty. The “economic migrant” is that second group that Vonberg identifies as the one we’re supposed to harden our hearts to. After all, poverty (in Iain Duncan Smith’s Britain and more broadly, in the neoliberal frame) is the fault of the poor. You’re not a winner. Your country may be dysfunctional but you should fix it. I’m not saying the solution to this is for everyone to up sticks and leave but I don’t have the right to sit as judge on jury on those that do. If it were my family, my life, what would I do?
I am an economic migrant. I came for study, I stayed to work. I changed categories. That’s life, we’re moving through categories. I also came on a plane, in comfort and safety because I had the choices available to me to do so. If you’ve had to take your life in your hands and put your body and perhaps your children’s bodies in a boat not knowing if you’re going to live or die — where’s the choice in that? Some people leave death behind them and don’t know if they’re going to make it to the other side of the water. That’s not a choice. That’s desperation. That’s a humanitarian crisis.
I agree with Al Jazeera, the word migrant has become reductive. And I agree with Vonberg, we shoud reclaim it. Media houses should try to be as accurate as possible when describing people – people.
I would like to see the end of the phrase “migrant crisis” though. Migration is not a problem to be solved and yes, there is a crisis, but it’s a humanitarian one.
And perhaps one of compassion, too.
*such as it is. I mean, that’s another discussion.