Les mots

What is a migrant?

Foreigner – Immigrant – Emigrant – Expatriate – Stateless – Undocumented – Illegal immigrant – Refugee – Asylum-seeker – Outcast – Exile – Harraga – Displaced – Immigrant background – Of immigrant origin – Beur –… All these words express and designate the “Other”, the one arriving, the one living here. As is the case when numbers guide our thinking, words sort the desirable from the undesirable. Words express the world, convey/betray how it is perceived, create the foundations for hospitalities or suspicions.

Rip  Hopkins, Another country, « Il faudrait me lier pieds et poings pour me ramener en Angleterre »
Rip Hopkins, Another country, « You would have to drag me kicking and screaming back to England », Ribérac, Musée national de l'histoire de l’immigration, Inv 2021.14.7 © EPPPD-MNHI, © Rip Hopkins

One word and humans

The one word on everyone’s lips: “migrant”. It’s everywhere nowadays: “migrant crisis”, “migrant child”, “migrant camp”, “death of a migrant”, “Afghan migrant”… Thousands of men, women and children have woken up to find themselves “migrants”. Exit their humanity. Exit their flesh and blood. Exit their tears and laughter. Life, and death too – the time it takes to snap a photo – have been reduced to the rank of abstract language concepts. The French Defender of Rights Jacques Toubon sounded the alarm back in 2016, referring to this rationale around use of the word “foreigner”: “the fact that both the law and common practice perceive individuals as “foreigners” before considering them for who they are, children, sick people, workers or public service users, has the effect of substantially weakening their access to basic rights” (The basic rights of foreigners in France: thematic report, May 2016). Just replace “foreigner” with “migrant”.

A buffer word

“Migrant” has become a catch-all word. In a commendable attempt at neutrality, it designates any person in a situation of displacement or mobility. But by doing so, it clouds and distorts, ultimately lumping together the refugee and the tourist, the economic migrant and the asylum seeker, the curious and the needy. The obligatory and the voluntary. With the word “migrant”, we’re shopping for a bargain, wrapping this whole beautiful world up so we don’t have to distinguish and, sliding imperceptibly, can just turn our heads away. “Migrant” removes our responsibility whereas “refugee” requires something of us. As Jean Paul Mari wrote: “no, migrants are not illegals. Most of them are refugees. And they have the right – the right, not charity – to be granted asylum in the European countries they are exiled to.” (Les bateaux ivres: l’odyssée des migrants en Méditerranée, J. C. Lattès).

The figure of the suspect

But perceptions change, and the term “migrant” is experiencing a decline in its conceptual neutrality: with every economic “crisis” or obsession with security, the “migrant” becomes a suspect. In the dialectics of words and images, “migrant” is ultimately associated with escape, invasion. The researcher François Gemenne sums it up as follows: “Now he’s associated with the idea that migrants are outlaws, an association reinforced by expressions like illegal immigrant” (quoted by Blandine Le Cain, Le Figaro, August 26th 2015).

The lessons of history

Migration is neither a disease nor a crime, and history allows us to question our representations and the place that the creation of Nation-states and the ancestral separation of nomads/breeders and settlers/growers hold in these perceptions (and ideologies): “The mere fact of talking about migrants means you’re adopting the viewpoint of the settler. And for him, the nomad, a very devaluing term, is the absolute other, just as today’s migrant is more or less associated with an invader who will destroy everything and who must not be allowed in”, says geographer Christian Grataloup (La Croix, November 6th 2015). Behind the migrant, it is thought, invasion lurks. Exit – except in Angela Merkel’s Germany or perhaps in a Poland open to Ukrainian refugees – any prospects of integration and even assimilation, any mutual influences and diversity.
The migrant is associated with wandering, that other way of being excluded from humanity in general. What does it matter then that figures and situations show invasion to be a myth? The fear is there. And it is by no means certain that “naming things correctly” would rid the world of misfortune. However, an effort at education and information is still required, as is raising the level of the public debate. Remind people for example that migrations – or the various forms of mobility – are an integral part of the history of mankind, they are even an inherent generic process, the very foundation of all life even. “Migrations have been the norm through the entire history of mankind”, along with “multiple cultural melting pots”, says paleogenomics specialist Eva Maria Geigl, in her article “Migrer, c’est toute l’histoire de l’humanité” (La Croix, November 6th 2015). More recently, Lluis Quintana Murci presents the same finding in Le Peuple des humains (Odile Jacob 2021).

Mustapha Harzoune, 2022