Weird things happen to the English language in Brussels. Even as the EU has accepted English as its lingua franca, the bureaucratese that gets churned out of Europe’s largest sausage factory often has native speakers scratching their heads – take “actorness” or “planification,” for example.
A few years ago, one translator in Brussels started publishing a helpful guide called Misused English Words and Expressions in EU Publications. Given the weight of Germany and France in the EU, Teutonisms and Gallicisms are the worst offenders. That eurocrats do not fully grasp the meaning of “important”, “punctual”, or “coherent” may not come as a surprise. But that they are also struggling with the correct usage of “agenda” and “of” is troubling, to say the least.
Hotspot deserves to be added to the list of the EU’s linguistic offenses. The euphemism for an emergency refugee processing center made its debut in eurospeak in May 2015, as Italy was struggling to cope with increasing numbers of boat people fleeing across the Mediterranean. European politicians promptly started parroting the term as if hotspots were the panacea for the ballooning refugee crisis.
In standard English usage, hotspot is written as two words. A “hot spot” usually refers to the kind of place refugees are escaping, like a war zone. Alternatively, it can mean a popular night spot, like a restaurant or bar, that refugees might have frequented in their previous lives as doctors, lawyers, or hipsters. The newest meaning of hot spot is a wireless oasis where global nomads – whether traveling for business, leisure, or physical survival – can tap into the Internet using their smartphones.
Hotspot sounds suspiciously like a Germanism, not unlike handy for mobile phone or public viewing for outdoor screenings of big sports matches. Yet even the Duden, the German language’s highest authority, stays true to the original English in its multiple and up-to-date definitions, with no mention of refugees. As late as February 2014, German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier correctly referred to hot spots as the origin of refugee movements – and not their destination.
The European Commission appropriated the word as it became clear that existing infrastructure in individual EU member states – first Italy, then Greece – was insufficient to deal with “exceptional migratory flows.” The EU executive promised to as- sist national authorities by setting up hotspots, or “first reception facilities,” where extra personnel would help process asylum claims and turn back migrants who do not qualify for protection.
The word choice was an unhappy mélange of the common meanings of hot spot, evoking a place that was dangerous, crowded, and high-tech all at the same time.
That is not to say that additional help for local refugee authorities was not desperately needed. It is just that the retooled English term morphed in its meaning as the refugee crisis got worse.
At first, the hotspots were intended as reception centers at four Italian ports where new arrivals would be registered and, if applicable, sent on to other EU states where their asylum claims would be decided.
During the course of 2015, the EU’s exceptional migratory flow turned into Europe’s worst refugee crisis since World War II. The Schengen system of passportless travel collapsed as member states unilaterally imposed border controls to stem the tide of human misery. And the EU bureaucracy could not keep up.
“A place of shame” was how the German refugee advocacy group Pro Asyl described Moria, the first EU hotspot in Greece, in November 2015. Surrounded by police and barbed wire, thousands of people spent their first days in Europe without enough food, dry clothes, or adequate shelter.
The EU and Turkey agreed in March to join forces to stop the dangerous crossings over the Aegean Sea to Greece. As a result, Moria became a de facto detention center, with migrants at the camp thrust into legal limbo. Things got so bad that the Pope came to visit in April, taking 12 lucky refugees back to the Vatican with him. After his departure, the remaining detainees rioted to protest poor living conditions and their impending deportation to Turkey.
One could call the twist ironic if it were not also so tragic. Despite the EU’s best efforts to sanitize the term, hotspot has reverted to its original meaning: a place where there is danger and fighting.