Why Words Matter

Calling a certain group of people ‘illegal’ denies them their humanity. There is no such thing as an ‘illegal’ person.


‘Illegality’ as a form of status has been deliberately assigned to undocumented migrants to justify a category of people who are undeserving of rights.


Language shapes people’s perceptions. Discriminatory language in reference to undocumented migrants leads to perceptions and actions which negatively impact the daily realities of undocumented migrants.

PICUM therefore uses the terms ‘undocumented’ or ‘irregular’ migrant. The term ‘illegal migrant’ should never be used because:


  • it implies criminality. A person can never be illegal. Migration is not a crime.
  • it is discriminatory. Illegality as a status is only applied to migrants and used to deny them their rights.
  • it has real impacts on policy and public perception. Inaccurate language leads society to accept that people should be prosecuted and punished


Similarly, PICUM uses the term ‘irregular entry’ and never ‘illegal entry’ to describe people who cross the borders without required documentation.


Everyone has a right to seek protection but the term ‘illegal entry’ automatically implies that certain people have no right to seek protection.

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It is vital we remain alert to inbuilt prejudice in the language used to describe ethnic minorities. Labelling human beings crossing the EU’s external borders ‘illegal’ is most definitely an example of such bias, and FRA therefore wholeheartedly supports PICUM’s campaign.

Morten Kjaerum
Former Director, EU Agency of Fundamental Rights (FRA)

PICUM’s #WordsMatter Initiative

PICUM raises awareness of the impact of discriminatory language and promotes accurate language in reference to undocumented migrants through its ‘Words Matter’ initiative.


The initiative is carried out jointly with its network partners. The key tool is a pocket-sized leaflet (see below) which provides reasons why not to use the term ‘illegal migrant’, a lexicon with translations of ‘undocumented migrant’ and/or ‘irregular migrant’ in all EU and UN languages and an overview of key institutions who have already committed to accurate terminology in reference to undocumented migrants.


The leaflet is available in English, Greek, Dutch, Italian, French, German and Spanish.


Anyone is invited to support the ‘Words Matter’ initiative!

Click on the leaflet in your language to find a lexicon of equivalent terms of ‘undocumented’ or ‘irregular migrant’ in all EU and UN languages and to see why the term ‘illegal migrant’ should not be used.

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When we use the term ‘illegal’, 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.

Aviva Chomsky
Professor of History and Coordinator of Latin America Studies Salem State University, USA and author of the book “Undocumented: How Immigration Became Illegal” (Beacon Press, 2014).

What can I do

Commit yourself to using fair terminology when referring to undocumented migrants.


Share the terminology leaflet with your contacts and inform friends or colleagues of the importance to use ‘undocumented’ and ‘irregular’ or the equivalent in your language. If media, policymakers etc. speak in discriminatory language about undocumented migrants, send a respond in form of a letter or social media and share the source with PICUM.


Follow and engage in the debate on social media (Twitter: #WordsMatter). Send us your written quote or statement saying why you think accurate terminology is important, this can also be a personal story or based on the experience of an undocumented person you know.


Send us a photo showing your terminology message in your language. Send us a video showing why it is important to use fair language.


If you are an undocumented migrant or a supporter of undocumented migrants, send us your personal experiences of how discriminating terminology and discourse has impacted your daily reality.


Young migrants of the Brighter Futures youth group explain what it means to be labelled ‘illegal’: click here to listen to the podcast.

A media glossary was published by the United Nations Alliance of Civilizations (UNAOC) and Panos Europe Institute with contributions from international and civil society organisations including PICUM.