BRUSSELS, 20 June 2014 – With the slogan “Words Matter!” the Platform for International Cooperation on Undocumented Migrants (PICUM) today launches its leaflet on accurate terminology when referring to undocumented migrants including reasons why not to use the term ‘illegal migrant’ and instead the recognised ‘undocumented’ or ‘irregular’ migrant as well as providing a lexicon with translations of the latter terms in all EU languages.

Over more than a decade of promoting the rights of undocumented migrants, PICUM has witnessed how the term ‘illegal migrant’ strongly impacts the perception that undocumented migrants have no rights and that migration is a criminal activity:

“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,” a migrant worker from the Philippines, living in the Netherlands told PICUM.

Besides being discriminatory and criminalising, the term ‘illegal migrant’ is also judicially incorrect as a person cannot be ‘illegal’ as irregular migration is an administrative rather than a criminal offence. In fact, research shows that the term ‘illegal migrant’ as a form of status, meaning a legally-justified category that is ascribed to certain groups of people and then used to deprive them of rights, was only created over the course of the twentieth century.

Author of the book “Undocumented: How Immigration Became ‘Illegal”*, Aviva Chomsky, Professor of history at Salem State University, USA has expressed her support for PICUM’s 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.”

This categorisation undermines that international human rights law guarantees undocumented migrants entitlements to a comprehensive set of rights regardless of their administrative status.

Service providers and supporters struggle to challenge these perceptions when trying to ensure access to services for undocumented migrants. A supporter of undocumented migrants of a solidary network in Finland shared her experience of calling a women’s shelter to see if they could support an undocumented woman who urgently needed to flee a violent situation:

They told me they refuse her because she had no social security number, but when I challenged them on it, the lady on the phone said to me, ‘Well, she's an illegal, she shouldn't be here anyway!’ Can you imagine? Sending a woman back to a domestic violence situation so she will suffer some more and maybe decide to leave Finland! It goes against everything the women's movement stands for.

Acknowledging previous efforts of key institutions, such as the United Nations, the European Commission and Parliament and several media outlets, to adopt humane terminology, PICUM will continue to campaign for language use which recognises undocumented migrants as rights holders and is in line with Europe’s values.

We encourage you to read and share our brochure. Use it to challenge the use of ‘illegal’ and promote the alternative terms which we have gathered in all official EU languages.

For more information on PICUM’s work on terminology, click here.

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