December 7, 2015. Mina, in Farsi, means “bird”. Mina flees. Perhaps she fled her homeland because life there is dictated by unemployment and poverty. Because she belongs to a religious minority, she could have been discriminated against. Or a state of war reigns in her country. Ultimately, the fictional protagonist Mina represents the 476,647 people who in 2015 fled their homes and applied for asylum in Germany.
According to the Federal Office for Migration and Refugees (BAMF), migration is, “when a person changes her or his place of residence”. This definition places emphasis on living conditions that migrants are unable to enjoy in their homelands. For Mina, this would include social and economic factors such as unemployment and poverty. Asylum seekers, on the other hand, are people who have applied for asylum in Germany because of war, terror, and political prosecution at home, but whose applications have not yet received a verdict.
If their applications are accepted, asylum seekers are officially entitled to asylum or are considered to be legitimate refugees. This would mean that Mina would be either under subsidiary protection or be a refugee according to the Geneva Convention. This, at least, is the definition of the term “refugee” in the narrowest sense of the law. But in general, all people who have fled in desperation are considered refugees. For Mina, this could translate to political and religious factors such as war or discrimination.
Currently, everyone is using the term “refugee”, which has “shaped the public discourse of the year and accompanied political, economic, and civic life in exceptionally linguistic ways”. This is the reasoning behind the decision of the Gesellschaft für deutsche Sprache e.V. (Academy for the German Language) to deem “refugee” the 2015 word of the year. To linguistically sensitive ears, this term sounds pejorative. Words like Fremdling (alien) and Schwächling (weakling) have negative connotations, while terms like Schützling (one who needs protection) and Lehrling (one who needs teaching; apprentice) contain passive elements that express a dependent relationship.
“These negative associations are often avoided through the participial form of the word ‘refugee’ – Geflüchtete (adj: one who has fled)”, explains professor Rüdiger Harnisch, Department Chair of German Studies at the University of Passau. “Added to this is gender-correctness, since participles, like adjectives, are gender-less in plural form. This means that they have a grammatically neutral gender and are therefore able to avoid so-called generic masculine terms like ‘refugee’, [which is masculine in the German]”, says Harnisch.
Gesa Busche, from the Refugee Council of Saxony, is of the same opinion: “It’s important to scrutinize language and use it consciously, because it constructs specific images and shapes reality”. The gender-less participial terms for “refugee” influence the ways in which we interact with them. Ultimately – aside from migrant, asylum seeker, and refugee – Mina is above all one thing: a human being. Her flight is just one chapter in her life. She could be a mother and a sister. She could be studying medicine at a renowned university in her homeland. And maybe she likes sunflowers.
You can read more here about the various reasons people flee and migrate. You can learn how BAMF makes decisions about asylum applications in this video.