Why Words Matter

Language shapes people’s actions and perceptions of how things are and of what is possible. This is as true in the context of migration as anywhere else.

If we want to reshape our migration policies so that they are more comprehensive, sustainable and humane, we need to rethink how we speak about the phenomena they address and the people they affect.

How we talk about “irregular migration”

We use the term “undocumented” to refer to someone who has not been granted authorisation to enter, live or work in a country. It emphasises a person’s administrative status and doesn’t make a negative value judgment about that status. We are among those who have been calling for decades for an end to the use of dehumanising terminology, like “alien” or “illegal” to refer to any person or group of people or actions linked to human mobility.

We promote language and perspectives that recognise the complexity of the human experience, the diversity of the people who migrate and their reasons for doing so, and the structural factors that affect their ability to migrate safely and humanely.

We refer as much as possible to people who are undocumented or have insecure status rather than to migrants, though we recognise that sometimes “migrant”, as imperfect as it is, can be a useful term.

“People-centred” language allows us to talk about people who never migrated but are undocumented nonetheless (for instance, because they were born to undocumented parents), and about people who do have a residence permit, but where the precariousness of their permit creates similar challenges.

We strive to underline the systemic factors that push people into irregularity.
And that make “regular” migration inaccessible for many.

The Words Matter campaign

We launched our Words Matter campaign in 2010 to challenge the use of “illegal” when referring to people and human migration.

To support this campaign, we created a pocket-sized leaflet that explains why we do not use this terminology and providing translations of alternative terms in all EU official languages.

The leaflet is available in English and in multiple other languages. You can find it here.

If you would like to request hard copies of the leaflet in a particular language, please contact our communications team on communications@picum.org.