The term “migrant” is inherently dehumanizing and journalists should stop using it.
Pedestrians. Everyone hates them. They stride out into the road, not looking where they’re going because they’re too busy looking at their phones. Pedestrians are always crossing the street. It’s like their entire reason d’etre or something. And they get hit by cars so often, you’d think getting hit by a car was their job. God, they’re annoying.
Thing is, there is no such thing as a “pedestrian.” In fact, there are only people, some of whom happen to be crossing the street at this particular moment. We have all entered that transitory state of “being a pedestrian” at some point in our lives.
These days, it’s become very common to read countless stories about “migrants,” who are usually presented to us by the media as a sort of sub-human category of creatures constantly engaged in the act of coming from where they live to where we, the readers, live. Even well-meaning storiesuse the term “migrant” almost exclusively. It’s quite common to read an entire article about “migrants” without once reading them referred to as “a person.”
According to most media stories, migrants are never people, they are always migrants, always the other. The use of the term “migrant” in place of the term “person” forever separates the reader from the subject of the story. Like polar bears or bees, migrants are placed outside of our frame of empathy, creatures whose lives are undoubtedly sad and about whom we should feel guilty, but not people with whom we should empathize.
It is this exercise in dehumanizing semantics that allows most people from rich countries to believe that it is their God-given right to visit any country the want, while simultaneously believing that “migrants” do not have the right, ever, to set foot in another country. And most people from rich countries would never, ever use the term “migrant” to describe themselves. When rich people move abroad, they are ex-pats, not migrants. To be an ex-pat is to be desirable and special, to bless the county receiving you with your wisdom and knowledge.
I am not the first person to note the difference between the use of the term “ex-pat” and “migrant.” Other terms used for people from rich countries might be backpacker, traveler or even “global nomad.” All of these terms have slightly different meanings, but they all have one important thing in common — they are not “migrants.”
Likewise, many Americans are “descended from immigrants.” Immigrants are associated with being scrappy boot-strappers who came to America a long time ago and helped make it great. “Immigrants” are family members and ancestors. They are part of our common heritage. Even the hated term “tourist” is one which we have all embraced at some point in our lives, even as we insist that we are not “that kind of tourist.” The idea that there should be limits on tourism, that not everyone who wants to should be allowed to climb Machu Picchu, is often received with horror. How dare you tell me I don’t have the right to climb Machu Picchu! I am a human being!
For this reason, the term “migrant” is not like the term “pedestrian,” “expat,” “tourist,” or even “immigrant.” Though these terms may have pejorative overtones or uses, they are not intrinsically dehumanizing, because we all spend time as pedestrians or tourists, or know people who have been expats, or have ancestors who were immigrants. Expats, immigrants, tourists and pedestrians are part of the human family. Just like teenagers, who may be annoying, but who are nevertheless only human like the rest of us.
But the term “migrant” is different. Migrants are always the other. No person from a rich country would ever describe themselves as a migrant, nor would they ever be described as such. Once, at a party, while living in Australia (and taking a job away from an Australian, by the way,) I described myself as a “migrant.” The person I was speaking to looked extremely confused. After all, how could I be a migrant when I was clearly an American?
The term “migrant” is inherently dehumanizing. So journalists should stop using it. The word “migrant” constructs a wall between the reader of the article and the subject of the article. It transforms a transitory state of being, that of moving from one country to another, into a permanent state of being, that of being the other. And if you’re wondering what word to use instead, try “person.” Nothing is more humanizing that being called a person.