Print Friendly and PDF
only search openDemocracy.net

From ‘migrant’ to ‘refugee’, our vocabulary has run dry

Much as the distended stomachs of starving children have stopped moving publics to action, so the abjection of refugees no longer shocks.

Three women arrive on Lesbos. AP Photo/Santi Palacios. All rights reserved. Three women arrive on Lesbos. AP Photo/Santi Palacios. All rights reserved.“They took me and another boy, maybe 16-years-old. He thought they might kill us, he was really scared too. I called my father and he came with his friend who’s in the military, and he was telling them, ‘please, my son is here, please let him out, let him out.’ I went out, and my father told me, ‘you have to flee the country’.”

Prior to Hussein’s capture by government forces, aged 18, he had witnessed two massacres in his town of Jdeidet Artouz, just outside Damascus. He tells me about what it's like to live alongside growing militarisation, assaults from rockets, and years of mounting violence. In 2014, he fled to Lebanon and began looking for work. But the small country was already hosting at least 1.3 million Syrians, a quarter of its population. He had no luck, and shortly returned to Syria. “In time my father sold his house,” Hussein says.

With this money, he paid for his son’s passage. Hussein was two years into studying for a law degree at the University of Damascus when he left for Germany, via Turkey. “First I went from Turkey to Italy, so I was at sea for 13 days. It was a dangerous journey. Not enough food, and not enough water. The last days, we had really dirty water, but you have to drink it.”

He now lives in Giessen, Germany, and is hoping to begin studying again. He's glad to feel safe, and people are kind to him. Still, he says, “you know I can’t feel that here is my home. So first my idea was to just wait until everything was better in my country and to go back to my home. Then I realised, the situation, it will be bad for a long time.”

It’s like a new life, he says. “Everything totally, totally changed. You will feel you are not equal, all the time you will feel there is something wrong and you are not equal to other people. When I came to Germany, I was proud to be a refugee. I came to this country because I had to; I had to flee.”

You are a person who needs.

But his ideas about what being a ‘refugee’ meant soon changed. “People don’t accept this word very much. It’s not a nice word. So after that, I would like to call myself a foreigner, not a refugee.” Hussein wants back the volition he is now denied, which reveals a fundamental contradiction: the humanitarian effort to distinguish refugees from migrants has had to be so vigorous that it is now very hard to imagine a refugee as anything other than a victim.

“Yes, I meet a lot of nice people, who are really kind, I like them, and most of them are my friends, but, also, you will not feel that you yourself are equal. All the people you meet, most of them will ask you, ‘do you need clothes?’, ‘do you need anything?’, ‘do you want this?’”, Hussein says. “You need something, you are not equal to them, you are a person who needs.”

Beyond the embedded stereotypes, Hussein’s sense of what it is to be a refugee reflects an uncomfortable relationship between neoliberalism and charity: that to be in need is somehow base. In one sense, Hussein confirms how the language of migration has accumulated pejorative meanings, and upholds Al Jazeera’s well-intentioned decision to stop using the term ‘migrant’, which the British press and political class use as a battering ram.

In another sense, however, counter to the contention that “migrant is a word that strips suffering people of voice,” neither ‘migrant’ nor ‘refugee’ works any more, neither affords agency: the language has run dry.

Dehumanisation tells only half the story

The humanity of people who aren’t white, so the argument runs, is effaced in western public consciousness. As the writer Arun Kundnani puts it, “the war on terror could not be sustained…without the racialised dehumanisation of its Muslim victims.” This is the mechanism by which communities are invaded, carpet-bombed and droned with routine occurrence; they matter less. Those in regions destabilised over centuries are now encountering what’s configured as a ‘European Fortress’ at war with a tide of migrants, as Frontex’s barricades lead more and more into the hands of smugglers.

But dehumanisation tells only half the story; in Europe, these people are being ignored.

Much as the distended stomachs of starving children have stopped moving publics to action, so the abjection of refugees no longer shocks. “There’s a certain, dare I say it, enjoyment to seeing people suffering,” political sociologist Alana Lentin tells me, “because you’re then in a position of power, and I don’t think any of us are excluded from that.” Snowballing numbers of the drowned and suffocated seem to show that horror is inherent in the fabric of the war-torn Middle East and north African region. Crisis is normalised.

Europe is colouring them brown because it wants to keep them out.

If racism refers to ingrained systems of nationalistic enslavement, enforced poverty, exclusion, incarceration, suspicion, colonialism, and murder, played out on the plane of genetics, appearance and ethnicity, then “race”, Lentin says, “is a kind of shorthand for understanding all of these complex constructions”. Europe isn’t keeping refugees out just because they’re brown. Europe is colouring them brown because it wants to keep them out.

In what many would like to think of as a post-racial epoch, talking about ‘xenophobia’ or ‘multicultural crisis’ is less inflammatory than talking about racism, and the political project of framing problems as ‘cultural’ inoculates the way we talk about this against history.

If you have a global system that discriminates on the basis of race – or many things at once – calling that system what it is does two things. The language acts as a tool for those oppressed by providing a vocabulary in which resistance grows. This honesty also enables a society to better take stock of its actions. Euphemisms quickly make the truth seem like a conspiracy. It’s hard to avoid abstract ideas when talking about ‘power structures’, and it’s easy for people in power to paint them as the paranoid vagaries of a bitter underbelly.

Maybe – as the rejoinder often comes – the racism in attitudes to refugees is obvious, and racial caste is built into the structure of the nation state. But as Lentin says, “it’s not enough to say, ‘I’ve understood! This is the way it is, it’s all systemic, this is the way the structures work’.”

“A continent that is becoming browner”

“Folks are struggling with the vocabulary of how to talk about it. You know, maybe curing racism is too high of a bar. It’s very, very much the same thing: a continent that is becoming browner and struggling with the idea of who’s going to actually be protected by these safety nets,” said author and journalist Ta-Nehisi Coates, speaking about his recent move to Paris, and how it related to his view of racism in the US.

His words seemed prescient when, in January this year, Denmark passed a series of policies enabling them to strip refugees of their belongings as they entered the country. Cash and valuables exceeding $1450 would be seized to “cover the costs of their food and lodging during the asylum process,” Inger Stojberg, the minister for immigration said, despite the fact that social benefits for refugees were already cut by 45% last August. Denmark’s “broad, universal welfare system,” they imply, would have to be scrapped if it were stretched this far.

Rescinding notionally universal protections acts a reminder of the distinct but comparable way in which, as Coates says, “a relatively large population of [US] Americans… are concerned about black people being included in those [social] policies, too. That was true in the New Deal. It was true in Obamacare.” In his book Between the World and Me, he describes a form of oppression which remains in place and stretches as far back as the inception of the “free world” itself: “the elevation of the belief in being white, was not achieved through wine tastings and ice cream socials, but rather through the pillaging of life, liberty, labor and land.”

The British approach is to try to wall the country off altogether.

The drive for segregation at the level of social infrastructure is not confined to Denmark, crudely enforcing a policy already on the books in Switzerland and Germany. The British approach is to try to wall the country off altogether, drum up ideas of an invasion, and ignore the reality that asylum applications to UK are some of the lowest in Europe at 60 per 100,000 residents. Instead, the UK pledges another €20 million on dispersing migrants trying to reach Britain from Calais, and the disastrous logical outcome of this is ignored.

The idea that migrants drain the state’s resources has been repeatedly discredited, and the erosion of services designed to protect the vulnerable exposed as ideological. “Actually, it’s not that the welfare state has to be eroded in order to share it more widely, it’s just that we have to spend less on other stuff which is completely detrimental to our citizens,” Lentin argues. “It’s always been a bogus argument to say resources are finite. The point is how do you spend the resources. Europe is still incredibly rich, economic crisis or no.”

Why, Lentin asks, are we “arbitrarily assuming that somebody who’s born in a particular country has any more rights to the resources? We know that’s bullshit. I’ve moved country 8 times, and because I have a European passport, nobody has a problem with it.” Whenever Lentin has lived as an immigrant in the UK or Australia, access to social security benefits has been a given.

“The idea of Europe having these very confined borders is a complete fabrication… the idea that we can hermetically seal ourselves as white nations. Where are the borders of Europe? Until extremely recently the south and certainly the east was not included in Europe, and there are very many ways in which the south is still not included in Europe. So the borders of Europe can be drawn willy-nilly depending on whom we’re trying to keep out.”

Dysentery in Vienna

The day after the 22 March bombings in Brussels, Poland reneged on its agreement with the EU to accept 7000 refugees (of whom 400 would be admitted this year). Prime minister Beata Szydlo said that “after Paris, the situation has changed.” President Andrzej Duda claimed that admitting refugees risked "possible epidemics," echoing comments by Jaroslaw Kaczyński, chairman of the parliament’s predominant Law and Justice party, who referred to “cholera in the Greek islands” and “dysentery in Vienna” – claims discredited by the WHO, and not a little redolent of Nazi propaganda that Jews carried typhus.

Remembering that the vast majority of attacks in Europe originate in Europe, it’s clear from Poland’s reaction – indicative of widespread prejudices, such as those expressed in the Czech Republic, Slovakia or Hungary – that constructions of Muslim ‘terrorism’ are not only being used to fuel fear and separatism, but act as a banner under which to justify and obscure less permissible forms of racialised aversion.

Jacek Jaśkowiak is the mayor of the Polish city Poznań. “I am really glad to see it changing,” he tells me. “Last summer we welcomed 9 families from Syria and helped them to settle in our city. We Poles also received a helping hand abroad when we could not enjoy freedom in our homeland. We were glad to do something for others,” he says, euphemistically alluding to the historical complexity that may have produced such attitudes.

But Poznań was where Syrian refugee George Mamlouk was violently assaulted in December of last year. “There is a hostile attitude towards refugees in the city, though. Radical groups, of nationalistic character, are active in all countries. There were acts of violence, too,” Jaśkowiak concedes. “I condemned them publicly. Now in Europe it is our duty to offer decent conditions for refugees seeking normal lives in peace. I do hope my country will respond in the right way.”

Within Europe, there is a sweeping conception that racism towards refugees is concentrated in eastern Europe, itself betraying a history in which “eastern Europeans have been kept in a strangle-hold in terms of the internal colonialism of the European Union,” as Lentin puts it. 

Racist beliefs, in the liberal imagination, are not just phantoms of a distant past, but belong to nefarious, and – crucially – marginal forces, by which sanitary, modern society is no longer capable of being swept away. Lentin describes this as the idea “that racism is fixed in a particular past, that only makes sense within particular regimes, that are understood to be pathological – never a function of western liberal democracy but always extraneous to it.”

I hate this word, ‘integrate’.

“At first,” Hussein tells me, “I was thinking that it’s hard for us because we are from another culture. But then I realised this is not true, this is not the point. For example, the refugees after the Second World War: most of the people who fled from east Germany to west Germany, they were treated as refugees; they were treated very badly. And they were not only from the same culture but the same country! So it’s nothing about culture.”

“I hate this word ‘integrate’,” he says. “It’s a really silly word. Because I don’t want anyone to be integrated. I just want people to grow up together. It’s the best integration you could have.”

It’s difficult to know the exact nature of what’s coming out of the woodwork. “If you really want to really boil down what people are scared of when they talk about multiculturalism as being a failure, it’s the dawning realisation that white power is slipping,” Lentin says. “The proponents of multiculturalism know this, they know this… it’s maybe slightly cinematic language, but their days are numbered.” There is something to fight for, in being at this cusp. “It’s up to us what we do with it.”

"We must act," Hussein says. "We are in a democratic country… It means that you can act. Not just that you can act. You must act." 

About the author

Phoebe Braithwaite is a submissions editor at openDemocracy. She tweets at @phoebraithwaite.


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the
oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.