PICUM: International Migrants’ Day – Stop using the term ‘illegal migrant’

On the occasion of International Migrants’ Day, migrants’ rights advocates from across Europe urge media, policymakers and others who have a key role in influencing public views on migration to stop using ‘illegal migrant’ and adopt accurate and neutral terms in reference to undocumented migrants.

The widespread use of criminalising language impacts the daily realities of undocumented migrants. The perception that someone is ‘illegal’ creates a key barrier to access services and uphold human rights. The use of “illegal” to categorise migrants as criminals also legitimises and normalises repressive law enforcement measures against people, simply on grounds of their administrative status.

As a migrant worker from the Philippines, living in the Netherlands explained, “Since the word ‘illegal’ has become a stigma in my everyday dealing with people, I started to ask myself whether I was really illegal. Of course, I am not and will never be. I am undocumented.”

With the slogan ‘Words Matter!’, the Platform for International Cooperation on Undocumented Migrants (PICUM), Right to Remain, Praksis, the Greek Forum of Refugees (GFR), KISA, Institut Panos Europe, Red Acoge, Andalucía Acoge and the Organisation for Undocumented Workers (OR.C.A.) campaign for the use of the impartial terms ‘undocumented’ or ‘irregular’ migrant in all EU languages. Available in English, Greek, Dutch, and Italian, the campaign leaflet on accurate terminology provides a lexicon with translations of these terms in all EU languages and gives an overview of reasons why to stop using ‘illegal migrant’.*

From a judicial perspective, the term ‘illegal migrant’ is incorrect as being undocumented does not constitute a crime per se. As it is not an offense against persons, property or national security, in most countries it belongs to the realm of administrative rather than criminal law.

It is inaccurate to use the term ‘illegal’ to describe those who have crossed borders through unofficial routes as it violates their right to due process before the law. Due process is a fundamental legal safeguard.

Moreover, the term ‘illegal’ ignores migrants’ fundamental dignity and rights. Only used against migrants and never applied to citizens, it is both discriminatory and offensive.

While human beings have always been on the move, the term ‘illegal migrant’ was only created over the course of the twentieth century. Leading historian and author of the book “Undocumented: How Immigration Became Illegal”, Aviva Chomsky, has expressed her support for the campaign, emphasising:

“It’s notable that the countries that most pride themselves on their commitment to equality, human rights, and democracy (like the United States and the western European countries) are precisely those that, in the late twentieth century, invented a new status (‘illegal’) in order to deprive some of their residents of access to equality, human rights, and democracy. When we use the term “illegal” in this way, we are implicitly accepting the idea that all people are not created equal, that all people do not deserve equal rights, and that the law should treat people differently depending on the category they are assigned to.”

Full press release.