Why “illegal immigrant” is never the right description: Migration terminology for journalists

Last 30 May the BBC World News home page reported that Frontex, the EU border agency, had detected an increase in irregular border crossings from North Africa to Italy between January and April 2014. The story, titled Illegal EU migration surges as thousands flock to Italy, was illustrated by a photo taken a few days earlier during the police clear-out of a makeshift camp in Calais, France. BBC 30 May 1 Several NGOs, academics and civil society members expressed concern about the use of the term “illegal” to refer to the individuals attempting to cross into Europe by sea. According to the article, a third of the latest arrivals were Syrians fleeing the war – that is refugees and asylum seekers, not migrants. Other significant numbers were nationals of Afghanistan and Eritrea, traditional countries of origin of refugees and asylum seekers. So, in fact, up to a half of the “illegal migrants” trying to reach Europe were neither migrants nor “illegal”. Additionally, some pointed out, the term “illegal” is inaccurate and criminalising even when referring to economic migrants involved in irregular border crossings. Twitter 1 The BBC took these points on board, changing both the text and the title of the article, which now reads “Migration surge hits EU as thousands flock to Italy”. Here is a comparison between the two versions, courtesy of NewsDiffs. The rather alarmist original photo was later changed as well. BBC 30 May 3

The debate about “illegal” migration terminology

The article in question is far from being an isolated case, both within and outside the BBC. As of today, both The New York Times and The Telegraph are still running similar piece on a surge in “illegal” migration to the EU.

During the past few years, a strong debate about the best terminology to use to accurately and impartially describe people who are in a country without permission has been developing in the United States. Civil society organisations and activists such as Colorlines.com and Jose Antonio Vargas have been campaigning to eliminate the use of the word “illegal” in relation to migrants. In Europe, PICUM, the Platform for International Cooperation on Undocumented Migrants, has started a similar campaign.

The case against “illegal” migration terminology

As language shapes the way human beings understand the world, the words used to refer to people crossing borders do matter. Inaccurate terminology increases confusion and misinformation breeds prejudice. These are a few reasons to #droptheiword.

1. “Illegal” migration terminology is inaccurate and misleading

When referred to a person, the term “illegal” is linguistically inaccurate because committing an offence, whether of a criminal or of an administrative nature, does not make the offender “illegal”. In the same way as a driver who does not stop at a red light is not an “illegal” driver, a person who enters or remains in a country in breach of its domestic laws or regulations is not an “illegal” migrant. Since April 2013 the Associated Press Stylebook, a well-reputed style manual for news writing, recommends journalists to use “illegal” only to refer to an action, not to describe a person. USA Today and the Los Angeles Times changed their style accordingly shortly afterwards.

Additionally, the term “illegal” is often inaccurate even when referred to the acts of entering or remaining in a country in breach of its domestic laws or regulations. Contemporary migration flows are mixed, meaning that refugees, asylum-seekers and economic migrants move together. When such a heterogeneous group of people crosses a border, the terms “illegal arrivals” or “illegal border crossing” do not take into account that international law allows refugees and asylum-seekers to cross borders without the appropriate documentation or authorisation (article 31, 1951 Refugee Convention).

Similarly, “illegal” migration terminology does not take into account that people may cross borders as a result of violence, deception or fraud, including by employers who then exploit them. These are victims of trafficking who should not be penalised for their irregular migration status (Principle 7, Recommended Principles and Guidelines on Human Rights and Human Trafficking).

Even with respect to people who migrate for purely economic reasons, the use of “illegal” migration terminology does not reflect the complexities of reality. Many migrants find themselves in and out of a regular migration situation during their stay in the country of destination (for example, they enter their country of destination regularly, but then fall into irregularity when their original authorisation expires). Compliance with migration laws and regulations may also be partial, as a migrant may hold a valid residence permit but work in breach of its conditions.

Finally, “illegal” migration terminology fails to recognise the distinction between breaches of criminal law and breaches of administrative law. As highlighted by the UN Special Rapporteur on the human rights of migrants, irregular entry and/or stay in a foreign country are not offences against persons, property or national security and therefore they should be administrative, not criminal, offences.

2. “Illegal” migration terminology is harmful

The negative criminal connotations of “illegal” migration terminology are stigmatising and suggest that migrants, asylum-seekers and refugees do not deserve protection under the law or that their human rights have been forfeited. In fact, human rights are universal and not dependent on migration status.

In particular, the use of “illegal” migration terminology with respect to the entry or stay in a country prejudges the situation of refugees, asylum-seekers and victims of trafficking and may be detrimental to the official recognition of their status. It also prejudges the situation of individuals with shifting migration status, such as those who migrate or have migrated as children.

In the countries where irregular migration is a criminal offence, the use of “illegal” migration terminology breaches the presumption of innocence. Ethical journalism treats all breaches of laws and regulations as “alleged” – irregular migration should not be different.

More broadly, “illegal” migration terminology is often used to justify discrimination and contributes to negative public attitudes not only about migration and migrants (regular and irregular), but also about particular ethnic or racial groups and all those perceived to be of foreign origin.

3. “Illegal” migration terminology is biased

In many countries of destination the use of “illegal” migration terminology has political connotations as it is mostly used by advocates of restrictive labour migration and asylum policies.

Indeed, there seems to be a correlation between the diffusion of “illegal” migration terminology in common language and the increase of restrictions in migration policies. Although informal and limited, an analysis of migration terminology in books, via GoogleBooks, provides a powerful graphic representation of the relatively recent invention of “Illegal” migration terminology in the English language.

Evolution of terminology referring to irregular migration in English language books, 1900-2014, source Google Books Ngram viewer, June 2014

Evolution of terminology referring to irregular migration in English language books, 1900-2014, source Google Books Ngram viewer, June 2014

Which alternative?

A few weeks ago Chris Elliot, the Guardian readers’ editor, responded to complaints by several human rights organisations about the use of the term “illegal immigrant” in one of the paper’s articles, noting that they were making “perfectly reasonable arguments that have been accepted in relation to other terms” and opening a consultation with readers about possible alternative terminology.

A solution to the issue, however, cannot be left only to the editorial guidelines of specific media companies. The best guidelines are produced when journalists’ associations, the UN refugee agency (UNHCR), human rights and other civil society organisations work together. When done nationally, this exercise allows to take into account domestic legislation and the nuances of national languages. In Ireland, the National Union of Journalists (NUJ-Ireland) cooperated with UNHCR and the Irish Refugee Council to issue guidelines on reporting on refugees, asylum-seekers and migrants. In Italy, the Journalists’ Association and the National Press Federation, in collaboration with UNHCR and Amnesty International, adopted the Rome Charter, a code of conduct on reporting of asylum and migration issues. Other useful tools include the glossary provided by the Canadian Council for Refugees and the Key Migration Terms explained by the International Organization for Migration.

In short, journalists should use irregular or undocumented when talking about migrants and irregular or unauthorised when talking about entry or stay.

This is the language used in the International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families (article 5) and recommended by the UN General Assembly, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe and the European Parliament.

How to cite this article: Francesca Pizzutelli, “Why ‘illegal immigrant’ is never the right description: Migration terminology for journalists’”, The Rights Angle, https://therightsangle.wordpress.com/, 6 October 2014.

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2 thoughts on “Why “illegal immigrant” is never the right description: Migration terminology for journalists

  1. Pingback: Why “illegal immigrant” is never the right description: Migration terminology for journalists | the democratic socialist express

  2. Pingback: Illegal, Irregular, Undocumented or Unauthorised migrants? | Migration & Development

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