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?


Ruth Vollmer, Bonn International Centre for Conflict Studies (BICC)

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 includeUmvolkung” (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.

The response to this investigative report was swift; businesses, politicians (of AfD and CDU) and associations distanced themselves or removed participants of the meeting from their positions, even if they claimed that participation had been on a private basis or that participation did not mean that they agreed with everything that was presented there. Around 1.4 million people took to the streets the following weekend all across Germany to demonstrate for democracy and diversity and against the supposed plans to remove large numbers of immigrants, mainly attributed to AfD, according to media reports. Several demonstrations were cut short or dissolved by the police, simply because the numbers of participants were much higher than expected and constituted a security risk. More demonstrations are ongoing and in the planning. Chancellor Scholz (SPD) and foreign minister Baerbock (Greens) joined the demonstration in Potsdam, where the meeting had taken place. Scholz wrote on X:“we do not allow anyone to divide the "we" in our country based on whether someone has an immigration history or not. 

We protect everyone - regardless of origin, skin color and regardless of how uncomfortable this may make people with assimilation fantasies feel”. In this context, the nomination of Remigration as an un-word received a largely positive echo and hit a momentum.

Only a few voices drew attention to the fact that deportations and so-called assisted voluntary returns are part and parcel of German and EU migration governance, as well as constantly expanding external border controls and pushbacks. The cover of the German weekly Der Spiegel from October 2023, quoting Scholz saying that “we finally have to deport on a grand scale”, is only one piece of evidence that forced returns are politically mainstream and perceived as the flip side of refugee protection. In December 2023, the German government voted for the reform of GEAS, thereby endorsing the processing of asylum claims at the EU’s external borders. On January 18, 2024, literally in the midst of the massive mobilization against the AfD and their removal plans, the German Parliament with its majority of Social Democrats and Greens passed the Repatriation Improvement Act (Rückführungsverbesserungsgesetz). This new law grants the police significantly more rights to search for, detain and withhold information from migrants without the legal right to remain in Germany to facilitate their deportation. It is undoubtedly a reason to be alarmed when plans for forced or incentivized returns include German citizens. Therefore, the broad public attention towards such far-right activities is timely and important. At the same time, regarding the politics of return, boundaries between the far-right and respective ruling parties are much less clear-cut than what is implied by the responses to the Potsdam meeting and the demonstration. As Medico international writes in a commentary: “the ideas of the AfD and the identitarian movement are often merely a radicalization and exaggeration of the prevailing spirit of the asylum policy”. For decades, German political parties followed the strategy of selectively adopting far-right positions and terminology. As research shows, this mainly helps to make far-right positions more acceptable and does not reduce voters’ support for the political parties which initially brought these into public discourse. What is more, the more radical positions of parties like AfD serve the purpose of making German return governance appear more humane, at least in relative terms.

To be effective, a concerted effort against the rise of right-wing populism requires that non-right political parties set their own agenda and stop adopting the – toned down – yet simplifying and populist dichotomies and narratives into their own discourse.

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

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