It’s time to reclaim the word ‘migrant’

If all the migrants in the world were gathered in one country, it would be the fifth-largest nation in the world.

But we’re not a country. We’re simply 245 million people whose lives transcend borders, spread and fragmented all across the globe.

Some call us aliens. Others, perhaps the “lucky” among us, are called expats. Foreigners, immigrants, refugees, asylum seekers… the list goes on.

My great great grandfather emigrated from Sweden to the US with about 100 dollars, limited skills, and no knowledge of English. He said farewell to his family, knowing that “I may never see them again in this lifetime, as I am leaving to find a new home in the valleys of the west, around the Rocky Mountains of America.”

He knew he was risking his life on the boat across the Atlantic: he wrote in his journal, July 2, 1871, that on a ship with just about 300 people, “57 bodies were tossed overboard on the previous crossing”.

Upon arriving to the US he had to rely on the compassion of others to survive, and worked – largely in the mines – to eventually bring over his sweetheart from back home as well. All for the chance at a better life.

Swedish immigrants in the 1800s
Different people, different time – many of the same reasons. Scan from A Folk Divided: Homeland Swedes and Swedish Americans. Held by the Swedish Emigrant Institute, Växjö.

Today that would never have worked.

“It’s really astonishing that in a country founded by immigrants, ‘Immigrant’ has somehow become a bad word.”

That line has been referred to in many an article since the Hamilton Mixtape was released last year. It’s powerful, it’s sad, and it’s true.

But if “immigrant” has become a bad word, “migrant” is even worse.

While the former isn’t exactly a compliment these days, those two little letters still make the difference between being seen as a human being or a pest. While immigrant sounds warm, migrant sounds like a statistic. Migrants are demonized and dehumanized. Migrants come in  “floods” and “swarms”, “infiltrating” and “invading”. They are numbers and nuisances.

At the same time, confusion abounds over what the difference actually is between an immigrant and a migrant.

For some it’s a matter of place: the term immigrant is more common in the US while migrant is more common in Europe. Some claim that “immigrant” implies settling somewhere, whereas a “migrant” is still on the move or perhaps doesn’t intend to stay. Some state that “immigrants are usually individuals” whereas “migration happens in large numbers”. Others say migration simply is the “umbrella term under which both immigration and emigration fall”.

But regardless of how you define it, the word “migrant” has got a bad rap lately.

“It has evolved from its dictionary definitions into a tool that dehumanises and distances, a blunt pejorative,” wrote editor Barry Malone in 2015 when Al Jazeera officially dropped the word.

Even in our own office we’ve had discussions – debates even – about the implications of saying migrant versus immigrant and why we should use one or the other.

“Migrant has a negative connotation, don’t you think? We should say something else; no one will want to identify with it. Immigrant is better.”

But that’s exactly the problem. That’s exactly why we need to reclaim the word migrant.

Migrant comes from the Latin verb migrare, to move or shift.  What’s so shameful about that?

We are movers. We are movers and shakers brave enough to make a change, to risk so much – sometimes even our lives – for a better future. Isn’t that something worth celebrating?

But why not just say “immigrant?” you may wonder. What’s the big deal?

For us, the concept of im-migrant (and em-migrant) is implicitly connected to borders and the crossing of those borders. It suggests an “otherness” – that you’ve moved from one place into another where you don’t really belong.

In a theoretical world beyond borders, you’re left without the prefixes: just migrant. Just the movement itself…not the obstacles to movement.

Besides, not all of us know where we’re going. You may think you will spend your whole life somewhere and still be forced to leave. Some of us have one foot on each side of an arbitrary line drawn in the sand, while others are so accustomed to moving around that we don’t identify with any “us” or “them”.

Indeed, a GlobeScan poll last year suggested that more than half of residents (across 18 countries surveyed around the world) view themselves as global citizens, “outward looking and internationally minded”, rather than simply citizens of one nation.

This is the idea, the seed, which today has budded into the Beyond Borders: the migrant magazine.

We all have our own unique stories to tell. There are hundreds, thousands, of reasons for moving from one place to another. Some are running to something, others are running from something. Some seek asylum and others are granted prestigious research positions abroad. We come from diverse backgrounds, cultures, races, beliefs, and pinpoints on the globe.

But we movers, we migrants, also have a lot in common. More than many people realize. And if we put our voices together, perhaps our stories could be heard and we can change the dialogue.

On occasion on this website you will find the word immigrant – such as in quotes and names of organizations. It’s a widespread word and it’s unavoidable.

But generally, when possible, we will use the word migrant – because that is what we are. We will focus on moving beyond borders and the common elements of that experience no matter where those borders are. We will highlight what we movers share, no matter why we had to move, how much money we have in our pockets, or the color of our skin.

So here we are.

Welcome to Beyond Borders – a celebration of the migrant experience, and all the struggles and joys that make us who we are.

by Solveig Rundquist, Editor