PICUM sends letter to The Guardian asking to change terminology

The Platform for International Cooperation on Undocumented Migrants (PICUM) sent the following letter to The Guardian authored by PICUM’s Director, Michele LeVoy, in response to their call for comment: The readers’ editor on… whether we should use the term ‘illegal immigrant’, 24 August 2014:

Dear Mr Elliott and Mr. Marsh,

The Platform for International Cooperation on Undocumented Migrants (PICUM) is a Brussels based NGO that promotes respect for the human rights of undocumented migrants within Europe. We acknowledge the Guardian’s frequent and in-depth coverage on issues regarding irregular migration which also serves as a news source to inform our network about ongoing developments on irregular migration in the UK and beyond. We are therefore very appreciative that you have opened up a debate on accurate terminology in reference to undocumented migrants.

PICUM strongly opposes the term ‘illegal’ migrant and other inaccurate and discriminatory language in reference to migrants and refugees and promotes the use of the terms ‘undocumented’ and ‘irregular’ migrants. We would like to underline the following concerns about the use of the term ‘illegal’ and ‘illegality’ as a person’s status.

Firstly, 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.

Secondly, 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.

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

PICUM is currently running a campaign, endorsed by other organisations, scholars, and activists, on promoting accurate and impartial terminology. Our terminology campaign leaflet further outlines reasons why the term ‘illegal migrant’ is harmful and includes a lexicon of suggested ways of referring to ‘undocumented’ and ‘irregular’ migrants in all EU languages.

Aviva Chomsky, Professor of History and Coordinator of Latin American Studies at Salem State University, United States, recently endorsed PICUM’s campaign. In her new publication Undocumented: How Immigration Became Illegal (Beacon Press, 2014) she discusses that “illegality” as a form of status — that is, a legally-justified category ascribed to certain groups of people and then used to deprive them of rights — was invented and strengthened over the course of the late twentieth century.

Evidence gathered through our network across Europe shows that the perception that someone is ‘illegal’ creates a key barrier to access services and uphold human rights. The use of “illegal” categorising migrants as criminals legitimises and normalises repressive law enforcement measures against people who pose no threat to society or to themselves. This includes physical restraint, deprivation of liberty and other unnecessary use of physical force. In the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights (FRA)’s recent report entitled Criminalisation of migrants in an irregular situation and of persons engaging with them, the FRA argues that the trend towards fighting irregular migration by using criminal sanctions and imprisonment “casts a negative light on how society as a whole perceives them. Migrants lacking a permit to stay may be committing an offence and are, therefore, often unfairly seen as criminals which makes them more vulnerable to exploitation and abuse”.

Over the past 40 years, at least ten major institutions and media bodies on the global and European level – including the United Nations General Assembly, the International Labor Organization, the European Commission and the European Parliament – have recognised the negative impact of the use of “illegal” when referring to migrants or migration, and have adopted the terms ‘undocumented’ and/or ‘irregular’ migrant (see also the timeline in PICUM’s leaflet).

The United Nations Alliance of Civilizations (UNAOC) and Panos Europe Institute (IPE) also recently issued a media glossary for journalists which states that the term ‘illegal migrant’ should never be used.

In terms of preference for “irregular” or “undocumented,” PICUM uses them synonymously. A wide range of actors also use both terms not only in English but also in other EU languages: “sans-papiers” (“without documents”) is a commonly used term by the press and other actors in France and in French-speaking regions of Belgium and Switzerland to refer to irregular or undocumented migrants, and likewise “sin-papeles” in Spain.

The numerous responses to your debate show increasing calls for ending discriminatory language. Building on the growing public debate, as well as numerous institutions in recent years that have decided to change their terminology, we strongly encourage you to prioritise ending the use of ‘illegal” when reporting on migration and to use terminology which meets the multifaceted, informative debates of The Guardian’s coverage.

If you would like additional information concerning undocumented migrants in Europe, please do not hesitate to get in touch with us – we would be happy to share the experiences and testimonies of our membership network. We also encourage you to watch PICUM’s web documentary Undocumentary showing the realities of undocumented migrants across Europe.

Best wishes,
Michele LeVoy, PICUM Director

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