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The Language of Erasure

Ecuadorian refugees near Guatemala – Public Domain

no one leaves home unless
home is the mouth of a shark
you only run for the border
when you see the whole city running as well

– Warsan Shire, from her poem “Home.”

Last month UK authorities came across a gruesome scene. Thirty-nine bodies were discovered in a freight truck in Essex. Most of these unfortunate souls originally came from Vietnam and were abandoned to die an agonizing, suffocating death alone; the alleged victims of human trafficking. It is not the first time that this has happened. In 2015 Austrian officials found seventy-one bodies in a truck lorry outside Vienna. And in 2000, the bodies of fifty-eight Chinese people were found in a container in Kent.

Many of the victims in the recent episode in Essex were from Nghe An and Ha Tinh provinces of Vietnam, a region hit with disastrous policies of financial austerity and a monumental human caused environmental catastrophe in 2016, the worst in Vietnam’s history. Over 125 miles of coastline was sullied and marine life decimated in a toxic chemical spill from a steel plant. Those most severely impacted by the disaster have received little to no compensation for livelihoods that have been lost, and protest to this corporate and government malfeasance has been brutally crushed. Indeed, the tale of the burgeoning, global refugee crisis is one inextricably linked to deliberate policies of neoliberal-style economic disenfranchisement, corporate or military caused environmental devastation, militarized state surveillance and repression of dissent, and accelerating climate change related disasters.

Around the world millions of desperate people are facing near impossible challenges. Increasing drought and flood seasons have made it ever more difficult to grow food in many regions. Intense heat and fires have devastated ecosystems and the communities that depend upon them for survival. Others face violence from the state or from criminal gangs. More live under intolerable economic conditions. These people will do whatever they can for themselves and their families to survive. They will do what any human being would do when faced with catastrophe. They will flee.

In fact, according to a recent report by the UN, refugees have been increasing globally at a rate that outpaces world population growth. And last month a study from Nature Communications released its findings in this regard. It warned that rising seas will flood scores of coastal cities and communities, putting at least 300 million people at risk. Most of these people reside in what is referred to as the global south, and will have to eventually relocate for basic quality of life and even survival. But thanks to apathy, a dearth of planning and deliberate belligerence from world governments, they will face enormous obstacles and violent repression as they do. We know this because today hundreds of millions of people traverse near intolerable landscapes and tumultuous seas each year, attempting to escape famine, war, criminal violence, drought, and ecological disasters. Most have little choice but to entrust shady third parties to make their perilous sojourn. Many spend their life savings. Many traverse cold, wild oceans and fiercely hot deserts. Many die as a result. And almost all face uncertain futures if they reach their intended destination.

One sea, the Mediterranean, has become an ocean of despair in the first two decades of this century. Taking to the cold and raucous waters, many embark on a journey to a better life in shoddy boats or rafts. Thousands have perished. And the risk they take is not only in regard to environmental conditions. Several European nations have criminalized their desperate attempt for survival. And those who decide to assist these drowning people are subject to the most draconian of penalties. German ship captain Pia Klemp faces 20 years in prison for rescuing at least 14 thousand refugees from a horrifying death at sea. And it isn’t only in Europe. Scott Warren of No More Deaths, was charged with three felonies for leaving water, food and other provisions in the unforgiving Sonoran Desert for immigrants. Each year hundreds of people perish there too while attempting to make it to the north.

But the greatest irony of our times is that the global north has become the primary destination for refugees. The vast majority of the world who are suffering the consequences of Western military interventions, corporate economic exploitation and pollution, and climate change fueled catastrophe are fleeing to the main source of these maladies. So it comes as little surprise that there has been a subtle shift in the language around this issue.

You may have noticed at this point that I prefer to use the term refugee rather than migrant. This is because the word migrant infers that these human beings chose to embark on perilous journeys because it is their way of life. An integral part of who they are. It is not. The vast majority of refugees have been displaced from regions they have traditionally called home. Places they have a history in. Communities, ecosystems and economies which have been drastically altered or destroyed thanks to powers beyond their control. The powers of capital. Politicians, the military, the corporate media and even some NGOs and think tanks have chosen the word “migrant,” and this is not by accident.

When we hear the word migrant we often associate it with migratory birds or mammals. It is only recently that we have come to associate it with human beings. The insidious logic is simple: if you are a people without a permanent home or land, you are not a people who have a right to be someplace else. You are permanently transitory. And this has been the same argument made against many indigenous and nomadic peoples who have ancestral lands they traverse throughout the seasons of a year, but no city they reside in year round. It is also a term that is almost exclusively used to describe people of color. And it is a terminology with a purpose: erasure.

When people are deliberately dispossessed of their ancestral homelands they must be rendered permanently homeless. They must be cast in a light of obfuscation. That is, the causes of their dispossession must be obscured. There can be no discussion of belligerent foreign policy or corporate plunder from the global north. No talk of the decades of subversion of democracy movements or democratically elected governments by the West. No truth telling when it comes to who is the biggest contributor to climate change, who has the biggest carbon footprint, or who has polluted and raped the planet the most.

Even when refugees are talked about in relatively sympathetic language, there is obfuscation. “They are fleeing dictatorship, or crime and drug gangs in their own country,” it often goes. But it generally stops there. No discussion of the legacy of colonialism or imperialism. So in this light, the language around the term “migrant” becomes very important. Dehumanization, even when subtle, is still dehumanization. A migrant isn’t someone forcibly removed or displaced from their home. It is a personal choice. They are migrating, just like birds or caribou. It’s natural. They do not garnish lasting sympathy or even solidarity because, as the term suggests, they won’t be here or anywhere long enough for us to care too deeply. They will not form communal bonds with us. They will move on. In short, they are not us.

So then when a society tolerates children being forcibly removed from their parent’s arms and placed in squalid cages without even the kindness of human touch or embrace, or the prosecution of people who try to save fellow human beings from drowning in the sea or dying of thirst or exposure in the desert, we should take a long, hard look at the language being used. The term “migrant” is not as loathsome as Donald Trump’s association of immigrants and refugees with rapists or criminals. It is not as hideous as far right politicians and some media personalities calling them cockroaches, or a cancer, or “infiltrators.” But perhaps that is what makes the term even more dangerous. It has become an acceptable term even though it obscures the causes of why these people are moving in the first place. It denies the culpability of the global north in their plight and ignores their right as fellow human beings to seek a better life by subtly erasing their humanity. And when any dehumanization becomes acceptable, the path toward atrocity becomes ever wider.

More articles by:

Kenn Orphan is an artist, sociologist, radical nature lover and weary, but committed activist. He can be reached at kennorphan.com.

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