The Use of Correct Terminology

Why undocumented migrants should not be referred to as ‘illegal’

In referring to migrants without a valid residence permit, PICUM advocates for the use of the term 'undocumented migrants' (or alternatively, 'irregular migrants') as opposed to 'illegal migrants'. PICUM underlines the position that is increasingly being taken by a multitude of non-governmental organisations, local authorities, professionals and even migrants themselves.The term 'illegal' can be criticized for three main reasons

  1. Its connotation with criminality as most irregular migrants are not criminals. Being in a country without the required papers is, in most countries, not a criminal offence but an administrative infringement.
  2. Defining an individual or group as 'illegal' can be regarded as denying them their humanity and risks violating their innate right to recognition as a person before the law.
  3. Labelling asylum seekers who may find themselves in an irregular situation as 'illegal' may furtherjeopardize their asylum claims as it encourages a political climate of intolerance towards those seeking asylum.

While referring to migrants as ‘illegal’ has political and/or societal consequences, it fails to take into account the varying degrees of compliance which may apply to the situation of any one migrant. For example, a migrant may be legally resident but working in violation of some or all of the conditions of their visa.

Routes into Irregular Migration

There is usually a complex range of issues involved in falling into an undocumented or irregular status, many of which migrants have little or no control over. These migrants are very vulnerable and are often excluded from all forms of social and legal protection.

The numerous routes to becoming an undocumented migrant demonstrate the flexibility of immigration status and how migrants can arbitrarily slip between 'regular' and 'irregular' status. Migrants who enter through regular routes with a valid visa, may later find themselves in an irregular status. Likewise, migrants who enter through irregular means may become regularised.

Regular Entry

It the experience of PICUM and those within its network that the majority of migrants arrive in their country of destination by legal routes with student, work or tourist visas. Following their arrival however, some find that the cost of their movement cannot be recovered through the very limited work opportunities permitted under the terms of their visa and are often compelled to violate its terms by accepting additional hours of work or by staying beyond its expiration date.

The work permit systems remain very much employer-led and their is often a lack of flexibility between schemes.Migrant workers face numerous financial implications of applying for a valid work permit, and the lack of options for workers who have been exploited in their jobs are contributing factors to migrant workers becoming undocumented. The most common difficulty for many workers, occurred when their employer promised to renew their work permit but failed to do so. The absence of a practical solution in such cases contributes directly to migrants becoming undocumented.

Family members, such as children and spouses, may legally join their relatives living or working in the host country but often do not acquire a legal status for themselves. They do not have an independent right of residence of their own and may become undocumented as a result of separation or marital breakdown.

Ambassadors and other embassy staff who lose their diplomatic status while in a foreign country may also find themselves in an undocumented situation.

Irregular entry

This category refers to migrants who enter a country without passing through border controls or by doing so with false papers. It may happen knowingly, as often occurs among those seeking refugee status due to the difficulty in leaving their country of origin in order to claim asylum, or unknowingly, as in the case of many trafficked people. 

While it has been shown that the majority of undocumented migrants in Europe did not arrive in Europe by these means, the focus on increasing border restrictions remains a key concern of politicians at national and EU levels.

Despite the increased visibility of this phenomenon in the media, there are very few in-depth analyses of the reasons why so many undocumented migrants risk their lives to come to Europe. Media attention is too often focused on the more tragic aspects, like the life -threatening conditions of the journeys, but no attention is given to other aspects such as the need for workers in various low-wage industries or the positive role that these workers play in the development of both their countries of origin and destination.

Main sources:

- Migrant Rights Centre Ireland, Life in the Shadows (2007)  Click here
- PICUM, Undocumented Migrants Have Rights! (2007)   Click here

External Sources: 
- Anderson et al, Semi-Compliance in the Migrant Labour Market (2006) 
- Bogusz et al (eds.), Irregular Migration and Human Rights (2004)   Click here
European Glossary on Undocumented Migration Click here
- GCIM, Irregular Migration, State Security and Human Security Click here
- International Organisation for Migration, Commonly used Migration Terms Click here
- Association of Hispanic Journalists, Dehumanizing terms in migration coverage Click here
- UNHCR, International Thesaurus of Refugee Terminology Click here
- Website of SOLIDAR Click here

“IN OUR OWN WORDS” – Call for submissions from undocumented migrants and their supporters!

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