Beyond the migrant/refugee dichotomy: denominations of people on the move in media discourse in Belgium 

By Mistiaen Valériane 

Following the war in Syria, numerous debates regarding displaced people have placed immigration in the political and media spotlight. A wide range of factors have contributed to creating these discursive events in the media as well as the representations that circulate in society about migration. Words defining people on the move (e.g. refugee, migrant, immigrant, asylum-seeker, illegal, displaced person, etc.) are not fixed in time, their meaning and reference evolve according to events and social representations, contributing to constructing both the public issue and the image of the social actors involved. The way people on the move are named influences the construction of their identity and impacts their future. Being labelled as an economic migrant, a fortune hunter or being granted refugee status do not have the same political implications: the former risk living in illegality while the latter obtain a protection status for a limited time.  

In sum, categorisation – and thus the word used to name the category – displays power. In the context of Europe’s migratory crisis, the use of categories has become deeply politicised, and strongly vary according to the social and discursive context. Moreover, the categorisation of people on the move in media discourse influences public opinion. 

Valériane Mistiaen wrote a PhD thesis, published in 2023, titled “Beyond the migrant/refugee dichotomy: denominations of people on the move in media discourse in Belgium” that documents, through a lexical discourse analysis, the lexical repertoire of denominations used to name people on the move and the evolution of the meaning of these terms in the Belgian national media. She collected 13,391 articles and 3490 news broadcasts from March 2015 to July 2017 to evaluate whether the issue of migration was constructed differently in the Belgian French and Dutch speaking communities. 

She concluded with four main results. First, there is great lexical creativity as more than 260 denominations were found in both the Francophone and Flemish corpus, from those most fixed in language (e.g. refugee, migrant) to those less fixed and temporary (e.g. people on the move, friend and even client). This lexical productivity can be explained by the need of politicians and journalists to describe new categories or specific cases. It also shows the flow/ intersection of media discourse to political discourse, to the point that many denominations, which are not owned by journalists, circulate nevertheless in media discourse through reported speech such as it is the case of fortune hunter or illegal

Second, the terms referring to migration focus on different aspects, such as the origin, nationality, sex, relationship, destination or movement itself. Many denominations found in media discourse are accompanied by a qualifier (e.g. vulnerable, economic, male/female) that modify the meaning of the word, even if some of them are legal categories that are supposedly stable and semantically accurate. 

Third, denominations are often used to classify people on the move according to their deservingness, dividing people between those who deserve to be welcome (the archetypal political refugees) and those who need to be expelled (economic migrants). Nonetheless, this research not only focusses on a few terms but analyses the whole paradigm of denominations linked to migration and shows that denominations used to name people on the move are plastic and semantically variable. 

Four, this study shows how the social memory of immigration is built differently in the two main linguistic communities of Belgium. It sheds light on the mechanisms underlying news-making routines, which could explain the different discursive and linguistic processing made by French and Dutch-language media. Moreover, grasping these mechanisms helps to understand the construction of national (or regional) memory and to what extent words shape public issues and the representation of actors. 

Finally, the lexical analysis highlights the moments when some words are used more than others (e.g. migrant, refugee), when some tend to disappear (e.g. allochthone, exile) and how the writing of this crisis is based on political and semantic choices, which might be soon forgotten as only denominations fixed by everyday usage remain.