UKREN blog

Tuesday 4 February 2014

What's in a word?


I went along to the interesting New Europeans question time event on ‘The challenge of free movement in Europe’. Although everyone there was pro EU free movement - so a debate it was not, the discussion was still lively. I was particularly struck by something that the panelist Oana Romocea, a Romanian working at the Bodleian Library, Oxford University, said about language.

She said that it was strange that anyone moving to the UK to live was labelled as a migrant, yet a Briton who moved to Spain was labelled as an expatriate. Both terms describe someone who has moved from their native country. But the public perception of a ‘migrant’ is very different to that of an ‘expatriate’. She illustrated the point with a story. A BBC journalist had called her, asking if she knew of a Romanian migrant. She replied that the reporter was speaking to one. Oh no, retorted the journalist, I need to speak to a real migrant, one who was here to find work or claim benefits. 

Semantics maybe, but language is important. Stereotypes are associated with certain words. Anyone familiar with the way that racism takes root in a culture will know that this sort of crass assumption about particular ethnic groups - that they are chronically inclined to anti-social behaviour or are not up to doing 'responsible' jobs - accepted and endlessly repeated, can quickly become the entrenched prejudice of an entire generation.

A member of the audience at the event said that he wanted to hear a much more positive debate about the benefits of free movement to the UK. I think he has a good point. We need to re-frame the narrative from complaining about how people from other countries are portrayed by politicians and in the news media to a positive one of the benefits of a diverse and vibrant society that free movement, immigration and race equality brings. The IOM has an interesting website that tries to do just that: http://www.migrantscontribute.com/. We need to reach out to the young professional class to whom country of origin is immaterial yet who probably fall within the Russell Brand category of young people disillusioned with politics and unlikely to vote. There are a fair few around Old Street (where UKREN’s office is located) and the so-called Silicon Roundabout who are working in IT and come from all over the World.

With politicians following opinion polls and the anti-foreigner rhetoric from a few, rather than showing some leadership and taking the view of the silent many, it is up to us to re-frame the story. Let’s bring a new positive voice to the debate. 

Alan Anstead

UKREN Coordinator

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