What are the correct words for talking about migration?
In recent years, the topic of international mobility has received a high level of mediatisation, whilst levels of hostility, discrimination, racial harassment and hate speech towards people with a migrant background are growing alarmingly in many countries. The words used in the media matter in the migration debate because language both shapes and reflects social reality. Discriminatory language is both a sign of, and a contributor to, inequality experienced by migrant populations.
Terms related to migration are frequently controversial. Those apparently neutral terms, such as ‘migrants’, ‘refugees’ and ‘asylum seekers’, have been much debated at the international level, but there is no consensus on a single definition of a ‘migrant’. The International Organization for Migration (IOM) considers the term ‘migrant’ as an umbrella term covering all forms of movements. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) excludes from the term ‘migrant’ those who are forced to flee wars or persecution, and who are therefore seen as ‘refugees’. According to UNHCR, ‘conflating refugees and migrants can have serious consequences for the lives and safety of refugees’.
The use of alarmist terms in public discourse has a negative impact on the way ‘migrants’ are perceived by host societies. Many administrative categories have, in a short space of time, turned into discriminatory labels. Some adjectives referring to the status of migrant population (like ‘irregular’ or ‘illegal’) have turned into nouns with the result that many dehumanising terms are often associated with migrants. Negative definitions of migration status such as ‘illegal’ (as opposed to the more neutral attribute of ‘migrant in an irregular situation’) are often used in public discourse, triggering anti-immigrant attitudes. As reported by the United Nations, ‘States increasingly resort to repressive measures, such as criminalization of irregular migration, administrative detention and expulsion. Criminalization of irregular migration fosters and promotes public perceptions that migrant workers and members of their families in an irregular situation are “illegal”, second-class individuals, or unfair competitors for jobs and social benefits, thereby fuelling anti-immigration public discourses, discrimination and xenophobia.’
Terms such as ‘irregular’, ‘unauthorised’, ‘undocumented’ and ‘clandestine’ are commonly used to identify persons moving outside regular migration channels. Although the international community encourages the use of these terms as an alternative to the term ‘illegal’, they still carry a criminal connotation and undermine the respect of migrants’ human rights. Refugees, victims of trafficking and unaccompanied migrant children may not have any other choice but to use irregular migration channels. Even so-called ‘migrant workers’ often do not have an alternative to irregular migration because of the increasing restrictions blocking legal pathways to movement. Regular migrants may also lose their legal status because of circumstances affecting them or their family members.
Other expressions are often used to portray certain groups as inferior to others. The term ‘extracomunitario’, for example, is often used in Italian legal settings and in public discourse to label non-EU nationals. It has turned into a derogatory group label over time, expressing negative attitudes towards migrants from poorer countries outside the EU (it is not used for labelling a Swiss citizen or Norwegian citizen, for example). Similarly, in the United States the term ‘alien’ – used to label foreign nationals – has a negative connotation and suggests a sense of otherness.
Definitions may be inaccurate and may produce stigmatisation and discrimination. Native-born children whose parents are foreign nationals, for instance, are included rhetorically in the migrant population. The expression ‘person with a migrant background’, used at the European Union level, seems to be an accurate term. It has a broad definition including all possibilities for a person who has migrated at some point and/or has a parent who did so. However, the use of terms like these can still lead to discrimination – the use of the term ‘second generation immigrants’ (2G immigrants) has, for example, become a controversial concept because it labels people who are not actually immigrants as immigrants. Many Italians consider these individuals as foreigners, as immigrants, when they are Italians with immigrant parents.
Although the media has often contributed to the spread of negative social stereotypes, it may in turn take an active role in the deconstruction of stigmatising images. The Internet presents a privileged space for the expression of the identities of the children of immigrants. In the Italian case, children in immigrant families have created many associations to voice their claims of national belonging, including citizenship. They also discuss issues related to their identity and their daily lives as ‘New Italians’. Internet discussion groups are committed to creating positive visibility and many interesting resources about children of migrants’ experiences (video, music, radio and TV projects) can be found on this topic. It is interesting comparing the external definitions of immigrant offspring (2G immigrants, foreigners, migrants) to their self-representation. These groups define themselves as ‘children of migrants, born and educated in the country, as Italian citizens’. They use also provocative definitions such as ‘Italians without Italian citizenship’, or ‘Italians with a residence permit’ to show the paradox of their status and to stimulate a debate on citizenship.
To conclude, this article is an attempt to raise awareness on the language of migration. In many cases, the language we use expresses unconscious cultural stereotypes, and for this reason, it is important to question established language structures and to think critically about the words we use. In the long term, being the victim of derogatory labels can negatively affect the well-being of the targeted individual by producing self-directed prejudice and worries of non-conformity. This would in fact weaken host societies’ own wellbeing since the exclusion of migrants can undermine the strength of social cohesion.
Further reading and resources:
‘Why words matter’. Initiative by PICUM. https://picum.org/words-matter/
‘New Italians’ website. http://newitalians.eu/en/index.html
Ruz, Camila. 2015. The battle over the words used to describe migrants. BBC News Magazine, 28 August. https://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-34061097
Lucia Chiurco holds a master’s degree in Political Science from Sapienza University in Rome. She works at the National Institution for the Analysis of Public Policy (INAPP) based in Italy. Her research interests centre on language, social representation and integration policy. The issue of unaccompanied migrant minors is the focus of her latest research. She likes staying socially engaged and is a voluntary guardian of a migrant minor. She loves exploring new customs, cultures, people, and places.