Israel: New testimonies show Israeli deportations putting Eritrean and Sudanese asylum-seekers at risk in Uganda

African asylum seekers and human rights activists protest against the deportation plan, in front of the Rwandan embassy in Herzliya, on February 7, 2018. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

AMNESTY INTERNATIONAL
PUBLIC STATEMENT

AI Index: MDE 15/8225/2018
13 April 2018

Israel has continued to deport Eritrean and Sudanese asylum-seekers to Uganda until at least January 2018, Amnesty International revealed today, despite statements by the Ugandan government that no agreement had been in place with Israel to receive them. New research by the organization shows that, once in Uganda, deported asylum seekers have not received papers, are without legal protection and remain vulnerable to exploitation, despite written assurances from Israel they would be protected.

On 13 April 2018 the Ugandan government announced it was “positively considering” a request by Israel to relocate about 500 Eritrean and Sudanese “refugees”. Although the details of the agreement are unclear, the Ugandan government stated that asylum-seekers would “undergo a rigorous vetting process” before being granted asylum in the country.

Amnesty International has collected new testimonies from ten Eritrean and Sudanese asylum-seekers deported from Israel to Uganda between February 2017 and January 2018. Seven of them are still in Uganda, while the remaining three have left for other countries in Africa.

These testimonies show uniform reception procedures upon arrival in Uganda that raise serious concerns for the rights of those deported, including the risk of forcible return to their country of origin. Asylum seekers told Amnesty International that Ugandan individuals were waiting for them at the airport when they arrived from Israel and then escorted them out of the airport via back passages, circumventing immigration and customs checks. These Ugandan individuals then took the Israeli issued travel papers from the asylum seekers, leaving them with no visa or other document to show regular entry into the country. One of the deportees was told that their papers had to be sent back to Israel. Taxis then took them to a hotel in Kampala, where rooms had been paid for in advance for two or three nights.

“It’s like a kidnapping” one Eritrean asylum-seeker described the experience to Amnesty International.

Israeli officials have issued documents and given verbal assurances to deportees that they will receive a residence permit in Uganda to allow them to work and protect them from forcible return to their home country. Israel also gives them US$3,500 upon departure. Once in Uganda, however, asylum-seekers interviewed by Amnesty international found these promises to be empty. Their irregular migration status has left them at risk of detention and forcible return to their country of origin.

One of the asylum-seekers interviewed by Amnesty International was arrested by Ugandan police shortly after arriving in the country together with five other deportees from Israel and beaten for more than three hours. “They were asking: ‘you are illegal, how did you enter the country?’ They took all the money we had from Israel” he told the organization. The group managed to pay the police to be released and left Uganda two days later.

At least four of those who remain in Uganda tried to start the process to seek asylum in Uganda through a middleman, who asked them for money. One deportee gave US$400 to a middleman who promised him papers and then disappeared. At least three of those interviewed by Amnesty International expressed concern that, because they were from Israel, they would be rejected if they attempted to submit an asylum claim.

One of the deportees told Amnesty International that he recently received a call from an Israeli immigration official, who asked him details about his current situation in Uganda. “I told him it’s very bad: I have no job and no papers” he told Amnesty International.

Only 11 Eritrean and Sudanese nationals have been granted refugee status in Israel since 2013. According to the Israeli government, 1,749 Eritrean and Sudanese asylum-seekers were deported to Uganda between 2015 and 2018, including 630 people in 2017 and 128 people in January-March 2018.

The Ugandan government, however, has consistently denied the existence of any agreement for the reception of deportees from Israel, implicitly denying the presence of asylum-seekers arriving from Israel on their territory and refusing to acknowledge any duty towards them. On 3 April 2018 Uganda’s Foreign Affairs Minister, Henry Okello Oryem, was quoted in the media saying: “We do not have a contract, any understanding, formal or informal, with Israel for them to dump their refugees here.”

The Israeli High Court of Justice is currently hearing a case on the legality of the deportations of Eritrean and Sudanese asylum-seekers from Israel. The Court has requested the Israeli government to provide information in the next few days about its “updated agreement” with Uganda, allowing for “involuntary removals”.

The deportations of Eritrean and Sudanese asylum-seekers from Israel are illegal under international law as they violate the prohibition of non-refoulement. This is the prohibition against transferring anyone to a place where they would be at real risk of persecution and other serious human rights violations, or where they would not be protected against such a transfer later.

Israel boasts one of the highest gross domestic products (GDPs) in the world, making it one of the most prosperous and wealthy countries in the Middle East. Israel’s GDP per capita is more than 55 times that of Uganda, while Uganda’s refugee population is more than 20 times that of Israel.

There is an onus of responsibility on the Israeli government to protect the world’s refugees and accept asylum seekers in desperate need of a home. The forced – and illegal – deportation of Eritrean and Sudanese asylum-seekers is an abandonment of this responsibility. It is an example of the ill-thought-out policies that have fed the so-called global refugee crisis.

The Israeli government must immediately halt the deportations of Eritrean and Sudanese asylum-seekers to Uganda and grant them access to a fair and effective refugee status determination procedure. Meanwhile, the government of Uganda must immediately cease any co-operation with the Israeli government to carry out illegal deportations.

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Home, by Warsan Shire

Warsan Shire is a Somali-British writer, poet, editor and teacher. Her poem Home has become a rallying call for refugees. There are several versions of Home online; this one is based on a reading by the author, available on YouTube.

Home

no one leaves home unless
home is the mouth of a shark

you only run for the border
when you see the whole city running as well
your neighbors running faster than you
breath bloody in their throats
the boy you went to school with
who kissed you dizzy behind the old tin factory
is holding a gun bigger than his body

you only leave home
when home won’t let you stay.

no one leaves home unless home chases you
fire under feet
hot blood in your belly
and even then you carried the anthem under
your breath
only tearing up your passport in airport toilets
sobbing as each mouthful of paper
made it clear that you would not be going back.

you have to understand,
that no one would put their children in a boat
unless the sea is safer than the land
no one burns their palms
under trains
beneath carriages
no one spends days and nights in the cold bladder of a truck
feeding on newspaper unless the miles travelled
means something more than journey.

no one crawls under fences
wants to be beaten
wants to be pitied

no one chooses refugee camps
or strip searches where your
body is left aching
or prison,
because prison is safer
than a city of fire
and one prison guard
in the night
is safer than fourteen men
who look like your father
no one could take it
could stomach it
no one skin would be tough enough

the
go home blacks
refugees
dirty immigrants
asylum seekers
sucking our country dry
niggers with their hands out
they smell strange
savage
messed up their own country and now they want
to mess up ours
how do the words
the dirty looks
roll off your back
maybe because the blow is softer
than a limb torn off
or the words are more tender
than fourteen men between
your legs
or the insults are easier
to swallow
than rubble
than bone
than your child’s body
in pieces.

i want to go home,
but home is the mouth of a shark
home is the barrel of the gun
and no one would leave home
unless home chased you to the shore
unless home told you
to quicken your legs
leave your clothes behind
crawl through the desert
wade through the oceans
drown
save
be hungry
beg
forget pride
your survival is more important

no one leaves home unless home is a sweaty voice in your ear
saying-
leave,
run away from me now
i don’t know what i’ve become
but i know that anywhere
is safer than here

Sharing the responsibility for refugees: A new global compact

An aerial view of the Za'atri refugee camp, Jordan, Wikimedia Commons

An aerial view of the Za’atri refugee camp, Jordan, Wikimedia Commons

Amnesty International, Sharing the responsibility for refugees: A new global compact, 9 May 2016, Index number: IOR 40/3906/2016

Wealthy states and the international community as a whole have failed to equitably share responsibility for managing the ongoing global refugee crisis. In his report In Safety and Dignity: Addressing Large Movements of Refugees and Migrants, published today, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has proposed a “Global Compact on responsibility-sharing” to create a more predictable and equitable way of responding to large movements of refugees.

This briefing urges states to use key upcoming international meetings to move from short-term stop-gap measures to long-term, proactive and globally coordinated solutions.

At the UN General Assembly High-Level Plenary on addressing large movements of refugees and migrants in September 2016, states should adopt a new Global Compact on predictable and equitable refugee responsibility-sharing, based on international human rights and refugee law. The Global Compact should include:

  • A permanent distribution system of resettlement places, based on objective criteria;
  • In cases of large movements of refugees, an additional distribution system to admit refugees through expedited safe and legal routes (“legal pathways” for admission) based on objective criteria;
  • Guaranteed full, flexible and predictable funding for refugee protection and meaningful financial support to countries hosting large numbers of refugees, over and above existing development assistance programmes;
  • Strengthened refugee status determination systems and increased use of prima facie recognition of refugee status;
  • Respect, protection and fulfilment of the rights of refugees in their country of asylum, including the enjoyment of an adequate standard of living, access to education, healthcare and other services, and economic self-reliance.

URGENT ACTION: Safety and health of Somali refugee at risk

A 23-year-old Somali refugee, allegedly raped in July on the island nation of Nauru, in the Central Pacific, is now 15 weeks pregnant. She is in urgent need of an abortion and mental health care. After bringing her to Australia to have an abortion, which was not carried out, the government of Australia unlawfully returned her to Nauru, where her safety and health are at risk.

Amnesty International UA: 239/15 Index: ASA 12/2717/2015 Issue Date: 22 October 2015

Abyan (not her real name), a 23-year-old Somali refugee, requested the Australian authorities to allow her into Australia to have an abortion after falling pregnant as a result of an alleged rape in July in Nauru, an island nation in the Central Pacific. Abortion services are not available in Nauru and abortion is criminalized.

In 2013 Abyan tried to reach Australia by boat to seek asylum and arrived on Christmas Island (a territory of Australia in the Indian Ocean) in October 2013. As part of its “offshore processing” policy, the Australian government forcibly transferred her to Nauru for her asylum claim to be determined there. At the time of the alleged rape, in July 2015, Abyan was living in Nauru after having been recognised as a refugee.

Following several requests to the Australian authorities, the Australian government brought her to Australia to terminate her pregnancy on 11 October and held her at the Villawood Immigration Detention Centre in Sydney. As she missed a medical appointment, on 16 October the Australian government flew her back to Nauru, where her safety and health are at risk.

The government of Australia claims that Abyan changed her mind about terminating her pregnancy while in Australia. She denies the claims and has made clear that she still wants an abortion. The Australian government unlawfully returned her to Nauru without giving her the possibility to challenge her transfer in court.

Please write immediately in English or your own language:

  • Urging the Australian authorities to ensure Abyan’s health and safety by immediately transferring her to Australia;
  • Calling on them to ensure that Abyan has access to all appropriate medical and psychological services, including access to comprehensive sexual and reproductive health information in a language she understands and in accordance with her wishes;
  • Calling on them to guarantee Abyan’s right to information about, and access to, safe and legal abortion services in accordance with her wishes.

PLEASE SEND APPEALS BEFORE 3 DECEMBER 2015 TO:

Prime Minister
The Hon. Malcolm Turnbull, MP
Parliament House
Canberra ACT 2600
Australia
Fax: +61 2 6277 4100
Twitter: @TurnbullMalcolm
Salutation: Dear Prime Minister

Minister for Immigration and Border Protection
The Hon. Peter Dutton MP
Parliament House
Canberra ACT 2600
Australia
Fax: +61 2 6277 4100
Email: minister@border.gov.au
Twitter: @PeterDutton_MP
Salutation: Dear Minister

For Twitter posts:
#IstandwithAbyan

Abyan's note to the Australian authorities, 18 October 2015, source: Change.org

Abyan’s note to the Australian authorities, 18 October 2015, source: Change.org

Additional information

At a minimum, abortion services should be made available where pregnancy is the result of a ‘sexual crime’ such as rape. This service should be offered to any woman presenting herself to medical staff requesting a termination of pregnancy on these grounds, without being compelled to undergo unnecessary administrative or judicial procedures, such as pressing charges against the perpetrator or identifying the rapist. Denying Abyan an abortion in these circumstances violates the right to privacy and to health and the right to be free from torture and other ill-treatment.

In November 2012, the government of Australia announced that asylum-seekers arriving in Australia by boat would be “processed” (i.e. their asylum claim would be determined) in the offshore migration detention centres on Manus Island (Papua New Guinea) and Nauru. Australia started transferring asylum-seekers to the two facilities immediately.

According to official statistics, as of 31 August 2015, 653 people (446 men, 114 women and 93 children, including infants) were detained at the Nauru migration detention centre.
A recent Australian government review by Australia’s former integrity commissioner Philip Moss (the Moss Review) detailed allegations of sexual harassment and sexual and physical violence at the Nauru migration detention centre. The Moss Review found that, since the reopening of the centre on Nauru in August 2012 the facility has operated without appropriate policies and procedures to protect detainees from physical and sexual assault. The review detailed numerous allegations of sexual exploitation, sexual harassment and sexual assault within the centre, including cases of rape. Victims of sexual assault included women and children, and highlighted that many asylum-seekers detained in the centre hold concerns about their personal safety and privacy within the facility.

When their claim for asylum is determined, refugees in Nauru are allowed to leave the detention centre. They are not, however, allowed to relocate to Australia, where they intended to seek asylum in the first place.

Several asylum seekers and refugees have publicly reported concerns about their safety on Nauru. According to media sources, there have been at least 20 sexual assaults on asylum seekers and refugees in Nauru in the past year.

On 5 October the government of Nauru declared that the centre would become an “open centre” and that detention of all asylum seekers would be ended. Nauran authorities have refused entry to international media and human rights organizations, making it impossible to verify the situation.

Since early 2014, Amnesty International has requested three times permission from the government of Nauru to visit. The first request was denied and subsequent requests have not been responded to.

Abortion is criminalized under the domestic legislation of Nauru. The Criminal Code of Nauru punishes abortion with fourteen years of imprisonment with hard labour (Article 224); a woman who causes or allows her own miscarriage or abortion is liable to imprisonment with hard labour for seven years.

Name: Abyan (not her real name)
Gender m/f: f

Amnesty International UA: 239/15 Index: ASA 12/2717/2015 Issue Date: 22 October 2015

 

The EU is in dangerous territory with “safe” country lists for asylum-seekers

Lampedusa (Photo: noborder network/ Sara Prestianni)

Lampedusa (Photo: noborder network/ Sara Prestianni)

On 20 July the EU Justice and Home Affairs Council recommended that EU member states assess whether to include Western Balkan countries (Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia and Kosovo) in a possible common EU list of “safe countries of origin”. However, the “safe countries of origin” concept has little to do either with EU member states’ human rights obligations or with an evidence-based, rational assessment of the current reality of asylum in Europe.

Since 2005, EU law allows member states to designate certain countries as “safe” to make the asylum process quicker and cheaper. The asylum applications of those from “safe” countries can be examined at the border or in transit zones and in fast-track procedures. But quick and cheap can come at the expense of legality and fairness.

“Safe countries of origin” procedures are inherently unfair. The general presumption is that a country on the “safe” list does not “normally” produce refugees, so its nationals’ asylum claims are unfounded. It is up to the asylum seeker to prove otherwise – which is difficult to do, since documents and other evidence are often lost during long and turbulent journeys. The task becomes almost impossible since national accelerated procedures for “safe” countries impose strict time limits, which can be as short as two or three days.

Not only is this unfair; it is inherently discriminatory. What “safe countries of origin” procedures ultimately boil down to is that some asylum seekers are presumed to be bogus solely on the basis of their nationality. The prohibition of discrimination based on nationality is one of the most fundamental principles of international law, recognized in the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights and numerous others international agreements. Only three days after the EU decision, Canada’s Federal Court struck down as unconstitutional and discriminatory a government decision to designate 26 EU countries and the USA as “safe countries of origin” (2015 FC 892).

The assumption that people coming from certain countries do not need protection because their country is inherently “safe” runs against one of the key foundations of refugee law, i.e. the individual nature of the need for international protection. The idea that someone’s risk of being persecuted may be assessed on the basis of whether or not there is “generally” persecution in their country is simplistic. In fact, specific individuals (journalists, lawyers, opposition leaders, human rights defenders or members of ethnic or religious minorities) face persecution exactly because of what makes them the individual that they are: their gender, race, ethnicity, political and religious beliefs, sexual orientation, etc.

For this reason, even countries that portray themselves as “generally safe” can produce asylum seekers and refugees. EU countries are no exception. According to the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), at the end of 2014 nearly 50,000 people from the 28 EU member states had been recognized as refugees around the world, while a further 3,000 EU nationals were waiting for their asylum case to be decided (source: UNHCR Global Trends 2014).

With respect to Western Balkan countries, the EU decision ignores that in 2014 the French Conseil d’Etat and the Belgian Conseil d’Etat respectively withdrew Kosovo and Albania from their country’s list of “safe countries of origin”. The decision also ignores the fact that in certain states within the Balkans, specific groups may be at real risk of persecution. Few countries are, for example, able to provide LGBTI people or independent journalists whose lives are at risk with adequate protection. In Kosovo, UNHCR has identified a number of groups at “particular risk of persecution or serious harm… including through cumulative discriminatory acts”, including Serbs and Albanians in a minority situation and Roma.

So, if there is no such thing as a “safe country of origin”, what was behind the EU decision to potentially consider Western Balkan states as “safe”? The decision mentions these countries’ “European perspective” and the fact that their nationals are exempt from visa requirements. In other words, Western Balkans countries may be considered to be “safe” merely because they are or may become candidates for EU accession, not because of their ability to respect, protect and promote human rights. The arbitrary nature of any determination of “safe countries of origin”, either at the EU or at the national level, is evident.

In sum, “safe countries of origin” procedures are unfair, unlawful and absurd. The possible selection of Western Balkans countries is superficial and arbitrary. The very substantive danger of returning to persecution someone whose asylum claim is valid should outweigh any consideration based on expediency.

Thank you to: Nicola Delvino, Conor Fortune, Sian Jones and Anna Shea.

How to cite this article:
Francesca Pizzutelli, “The EU is in dangerous territory with “safe” country list for asylum-seekers”, The Rights Angle, https://therightsangle.wordpress.com/, 24 July 2015.

Kurdistan Region of Iraq, December 2014: personal diary of a mission

Baharka Camp for displaced people, Erbil, Kurdistan Region of Iraq, December 2014 (Copyright: Amnesty International)

Baharka Camp for displaced people, Erbil, Kurdistan Region of Iraq, December 2014 (Copyright: Amnesty International)

From the plane, the alternation of seasons is evident: what three months ago was a large expanse of arid, dusty yellow land, now is dark brown and punctuated by moist green patches. After a fist visit in September, my colleague Khairun and I are back in Iraqi Kurdistan (officially known as Kurdistan Region of Iraq, or KRI) to assess the human rights situation of both Syrian refugees and displaced Iraqis.

As a result of the advance of ISIS and of the violence across the country, over 2 million Iraqis have been displaced during 2014. Nearly half of them, about 950,000, are now in the KRI, a semi-autonomous area smaller than the Czech Republic with a population of 5.2 million. Most of them are Yezidis from the Sinjar region, in addition to Turkmen and Arabs from towns and villages around Mosul. Before January 2014, the KRI had already opened its doors to about 230,000 refugees from Syria. It is as if the United Kingdom, population 64 million, had received 14.5 million people desperate to flee war.

Camps

The Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) has made efforts to build camps for those displaced. Baharka camp, just outside Erbil, hosts about 3,000 displaced Iraqis and Palestinians in tents. Being very close to the capital, this is one of the most visible camps. Despite the frequent visits by foreign dignitaries, journalists and charities, however, conditions in the camp are far from ideal, especially when it rains. After dark, solar lamps and mobile torches keep the market going.

Baharka camp, Erbil, Kurdistan Region of Iraq, December 2014 (Copyright: Amnesty International)

Baharka camp, Erbil, Kurdistan Region of Iraq, December 2014 (Copyright: Amnesty International)

The governorate of Dohuk, a town of 280,000 inhabitants West of Erbil, is hosting about 430,000 displaced people, in addition to refugees from Syria. When we first visited the Dohuk area, in September 2014, those who could not find hospitality with local families had occupied all of the spaces that they could turn into shelter: the local schools, building sites, unfinished buildings, garages, parks and gardens. Three months later, there are 9 official camps for IDPs in the Dohuk governorate, hosting about 125,000 people.

Two of the official camps were built by AFAD, the Turkish Disaster and Emergency Management Agency; three were built by the United Nations; and the remaining four were built by the KRG. As a result, their standards of accommodation, facilities and services vary greatly. In Bersive I camp, for example, an AFAD camp hosting about 10,000 people near Zakho, the tents are not fully insulated from the rain, there is no hot water and the number of toilets and showers does not meet minimum standards in humanitarian response.

Bersive I camp for displaced people, Dohuk governorate, Kurdistan Region of Iraq, December 2014 (Copyright Amnesty International)

Bersive I camp for displaced people, Dohuk governorate, Kurdistan Region of Iraq, December 2014 (Copyright Amnesty International)

With all their shortcomings, the official camps built so far can only accommodate part of those in need. The majority are scattered in hundreds of informal settlements, including construction sites, community spaces and unofficial camps. Others are in private accommodation or hotel rooms. Many of the displaced in the Dohuk governorate live in construction sites and unfinished buildings with limited or no access to water and electricity – a solution which is precarious, dangerous and open to the elements. We visit large unfinished buildings with no walls, windows, doors or bathrooms, sheltering hundreds of families in makeshift rooms with plastic partitions.

Construction site in the town centre of Zakho, hosting dozens of families. Dohuk governorate, Kurdistan Region of Iraq, December 2014 (Copyright Amnesty International)

Construction site in the town centre of Zakho, hosting dozens of families. Dohuk governorate, Kurdistan Region of Iraq, December 2014 (Copyright Amnesty International)

Makeshift rooms in a construction site in Zakho, Dohuk governorate, Kurdistan Region of Iraq, December 2014 (Copyright Amnesty International)

Makeshift rooms in a construction site in Zakho, Dohuk governorate, Kurdistan Region of Iraq, December 2014 (Copyright Amnesty International)

In winter, this difficult situation is made worse by the cold and rainy weather: at night the temperature can go below 0 °C. In the places we visit people do not have enough blankets, warm clothes and gasoline for heating, in addition to cooking, water and sanitation facilities. In a construction site near Zakho, Dohuk governorate, we see people making fire with paper to warm up; the weather forecast for the night is 3 °C. Many of the people we visit would not have survived without the help of generous landowners and neighbours.

Displaced people on a building site in Zakho, Dohuk governorate, Kurdistan Region of Iraq, make fire with paper to warm up (Copyright Amnesty International)

Displaced people on a building site in Zakho, Dohuk governorate, Kurdistan Region of Iraq, make fire with paper to warm up (Copyright Amnesty International)

There are an estimated 186,000 school-aged children (6 to 17 years old) displaced in the Dohuk governorate. The majority of them (about 89,000, or 55%) are in non-camp settings. There are significant gaps in the provision of basic education in camps. Outside the camps, parents who are struggling to provide for their family need their children to work in order to contribute to the family’s needs. As a result, very few of the children we meet are going to school.

Displaced children playing in the mud, garbage and sewage, Dairabun informal settlement, Kurdistan Region of Iraq (Copyright Amnesty International)

Displaced children playing in the mud, garbage and sewage, Dairabun informal settlement, Kurdistan Region of Iraq (Copyright Amnesty International)

We visit families in their tents, where we are offered countless cups of aromatic Arabic coffee and sweet tea. As our delegation is composed of women, the women of the families we visit can take their scarves off and the atmosphere becomes immediately more relaxed. We explain carefully Amnesty International’s role and the purpose of our visit, as it is important for our interlocutors to understand that we cannot provide them with food or clothes. However, we find people happy to talk to us; in many cases, none of the humanitarian organisation who provide them with food or clothes has stopped to hear their full story.

Inside a tent for internally displaced people, Kurdistan Region of Iraq, December 2014 (Copyright Amnesty International)

Inside a tent for internally displaced people, Kurdistan Region of Iraq, December 2014 (Copyright Amnesty International)

Some of the cases we documented will need long-term follow-up. An adequate response to the dire winter conditions, on the other hand, is urgent: immediately after the end of our mission we publish part of our findings, urging the international community to improve coordination and fill the gaps in humanitarian assistance:
Amnesty International, Iraq: Dire winter conditions expose shocking gaps in humanitarian assistance for thousands displaced, 19 December 2014.

 

This post is dedicated to Maria Corsi, my grandmother, who was a displaced child in Italy during the Second World War.

How to cite this post:
Francesca Pizzutelli, “Kurdistan Region of Iraq, December 2014: personal diary of a mission’”, The Rights Angle, https://therightsangle.wordpress.com/, 21 January 2015.

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.