History of a notion. The dramatic images of Kabul airport, where Afghans have thronged by the thousands in recent days in the hope of fleeing the Taliban, if they have moved public opinion in Western countries, also revived the debate on the issue of migrations. In France, an almost unanimous press, like the political class in its majority, evokes the duty to grant asylum to “Afghan refugees”; while a part of the right and the extreme right warn in front of a “migratory flow” which they consider worrying. Refugees, migrants, synonyms? Not really. The choice of words is far from being random.

Read the op-ed: “It is no longer possible to consider migrants as subhumans who can be left to die at sea”

The word migrant was used more during what is customarily called the migration crisis, which began in 2015. But on August 20, 2015, Barry Malone, journalist for the English-language media site Al Jazeera, announced that the Qatari channel would no longer use this word in the future to designate people crossing the Mediterranean to reach Europe, particularly from Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and East Africa. The term “No longer suited to the description of the horror unfolding in the Mediterranean”, asserted the journalist, because he became “A tool of dehumanization”. The channel preferred “refugee” to him, which would more accurately suggest the situation of those people in search of refuge, who are fleeing war, famine and poverty. But what does this notion of “migrant” really mean?

A polysemic term

It is the youngest of the family of “migr” words, which have their roots in their Latin ancestors (migrare, migratio). But, while the term “Migration” is used from the XVIe century in French, that of “Migrant” is relatively recent: we find the first written traces from the years 1950-1960. The notion is “Intimately linked to the conflicts of the twentiethe century, which triggered major population movements ”, explains Laura Calabrese, teacher at the Free University of Brussels and co-author of the book “Think the words, say the migration” (Academia, 2018). The occurrences of the term experienced a new boom in the 2000s, and, from 2015, with the migration crisis, they exploded. If its use then took on a considerable scale, decrypts the teacher, it is undoubtedly because a new word was needed, or in any case less used, to translate a phenomenon that we were no longer used to. to see in Europe for decades, that of massive displacements of populations. It is also because, she adds, the present participle expresses better “The process, the continuous movement, that of people migrating from one place to another, who sometimes find it difficult to settle down because they are turned away from the gates of Western countries”.

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