Nomination of “Remigration” as Un-word of the year

Nomination of “Remigration” as Un-word ["Unwort" in German] of the year by a Panel of German linguists: A reflection of German politics of return?

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  • English


  • Migration and Forced Displacement

Since 1991, there has been an annual ritual in Germany: Around mid-January, a self-constituted jury, currently consisting of four linguists and one journalist, announces the “un-word” of the previous year, drawing from a pool of suggestions sent in by the public. An “un-word” can be a problematic (e.g. dehumanizing or offensive) term or – more often – a rather neutral term used in a problematic way, for example with an aim to undermine principles of democracy and human dignity. What turns a word into an “un-word” is thus mostly not the actual meaning, but certain instances of its use. Choosing the “un-word” of the year is not only a linguistic exercise; the main aim is to sensitize speakers of the German language to discriminating, stigmatizing, euphemizing or misleading use of words and expressions by highlighting particularly critical examples.

Debates on asylum migration and forced returns of migrants have frequently been the source of “un-words” in recent years: Welfare tourism (“Sozialtourismus”) was the top un-word in 2013, when it was publicly used to delegitimize asylum seeking, especially from Eastern Europe and it was selected again in 2022, when the head of Germany’s conservative opposition party applied it to Ukrainian refugees. “Pushback” was top of the list in 2021, criticizing the normalization and increased public use of a term that denotes a breach of international law, practiced for example along the EU’s external border. In 2020, “return sponsorships” (Rückführungspatenschaften) shared the top position with “Corona dictatorship” (Corona Diktatur). The EU Commission suggested return sponsorships as a “new form of solidarity contribution”, through which some member states (especially those unwilling to accept refugees) would commit to returning irregular migrants from the territory of other member states. Thus, the nomination as an un-word underlined a misleading conception of deportations as a “good, humane deed”. Further examples include “Umvolkung” (2019), denoting a right-wing conspiracy about an ongoing population exchange; “anti-deportation industry” (Anti-Abschiebe-Industrie), which discredits individuals and NGOs providing support to people without the legal right to stay (2018). Also, in 2018, Ankerzentrum was among the top 3 of the list of un-words. In this term, AnkER is an acronym (Ankunft, Entscheidung, kommunale Verteilung bzw Rückkehr / arrival, decision, municipal distribution or return), but the jury criticized that it strategically evokes images of stability and safe harbor (Anker means anchor), while actually referring to institutions accommodating asylum seekers until their claims have been processed to ensure swift returns in case of rejection. Other former un-word examples include “shuttle service” for sea rescue missions by civil society in the Mediterranean (2017) and “kebab killings” (Döner-Morde), a widely used dehumanizing term for the racially motivated series of 10 murders across Germany (2011).

The most recent un-word – and one that very often made the headlines – is “Remigration”. Unlike in English, the German “Remigration denotes the return to a place of origin, predominantly self-decided, usually after a long stay abroad and within an individuals’ life trajectory rather than across generations. It is an established term in German Sociology and has also been used in the context of displaced Jews returning to Germany after 1945. The most accurate English translation would thus simply be “return migration”. However, occasionally, German and Dutch speaking scholars have used “remigration” instead of “return migration” in English-language publications, thereby adding to the already considerable terminological confusion around the different types, modalities and temporalities of return. The Introduction of the Handbook of Return migration concludes: “’Re-migration” is confusing because it has been used in the literature to mean different types of movement. Especially those writing in German or Dutch […] use re-migration to mean return migration. For others, re-migration means re-migration, that is, a new migration following an earlier migration episode. […] Actually, the story does not end there since some return migrants who re-migrate ‘return’ to their former host country.” (King and Kuschminder, 2022, p. 17).

However, none of these issues are behind the decision of the un-word jury. The justification for the decision states that the term “Remigration” has become a far-right combat term, used for example by representatives of the so-called identitarian movement as euphemistic camouflage to obscure the intention of removing millions of people with a migration history from Germany / Europe, where they supposedly undermine cultural hegemony and ethnic homogeneity of the native population. The background to this is that just five days prior to the decision, the non-profit journalist collective Correctiv published a report about a non-public get-together in Potsdam, which had taken place on 25th of November 2023. At the meeting, members of the political parties AfD (Alternative für Deutschland) and CDU were present, as well as members of fraternities, lawyers, medical doctors and entrepreneurs. It was confirmed that Martin Seller, far-right identitarian activist from Austria was invited as a speaker and presented on the “reversed settlement” of immigrants including “non-assimilated German citizens”. The Correctiv report presented the meeting as working on a secret plan against Germany.

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This blog post was first published at GAPs Blog on February 1, 2024.

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Cite as

@misc{Vollmer, author = "Ruth Vollmer", title = "Nomination of “Remigration” as Un-word of the year", latexTitle = "Nomination of “Remigration” as Un-word of the year", type = "Other", year = "2024", }