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Why are we talking about “Illegal Migrants” ?

Updated: Oct 12

With more people arriving in Europe to seek safety, anti-immigrant rhetoric from governments and media outlets is once again on the rise. We are going back to basics to explain why the term “illegal migrants” is legally inaccurate and harmful.

Over the past few months, European Member States and Institutions have once again made substantial efforts to further control European Borders. In July, the European Commission signed a deal, promising 100 million euros to Tunisia towards their efforts to stop migration from the African continent. In the meantime, the UK has passed the Illegal Immigration Bill, extinguishing access to asylum, and Germany, Poland, the Czech Republic, and Austria have jointly agreed to re-introduce border control in certain areas. These examples are only scratching the surface of a widespread European strategy to limit and block access to migration and those seeking asylum.

These big political moves certainly do not come out of nowhere. These days more and more conservative or right-leaning political parties occupying governments across Europe are ready to take a hardline against curbing migration. At the same time, the number of people arriving to seek safety in Europe has increased significantly in 2023, particularly in the late summer months.

Accompanying these developments are concerningly strong media headlines and the return of a crisis narrative that we are all too familiar with from 8 years ago, in 2015. A few weeks ago the major German newsmagazine, Der Spiegel, ran a cover showing a seemingly never-ending track of people walking into the harbor of Lampedusa. The background is yellow depicting a warning sign. The people walking are shown from behind, most of them carrying large bags. The title above the image reads “Schaffen wir das nochmal”? (“Can we do this again”). This cover is just one among many headlines, circulating recently, that support the kind of rhetoric of fear around migration, and feed into an anti-immigrant agenda.

Specifically, this kind of rhetoric is often tied to the image of the “illegal migrant” or “Illegal immigration”. We want to look more closely at this term. Why this term is being used again (after it was almost entirely replaced by ”irregular” migration), who uses it, and what does it actually mean?

The debate around migration is highly emotionally charged. Especially when the number of arrivals in Europe starts rising, the question: “How many can we actually take in?” often returns to the dinner table. Then, even those, who are not “anti-immigration” per se, may seek to find a “compromise”, and ask “Where do we draw the line”?.

The 2023 illegal immigration bill in the UK is a great example to illustrate a frequently used argument when it comes to “managing” migration. We can receive people in need of protection as long as they are not entering “illegally.”

Here, the term “illegal” becomes a tool to illustrate opposition to “refugees”. A narrative of those who are “invading”. To enter and claim asylum in the UK, there are no straightforward “regular” routes. With people forced to take what are deemed by the government as “illegal” routes, usually by boat, this forces the vilification of “refugees”. Declaring the routes as “illegal”, insinuates that the people taking them are also “illegal”. While convincing, this argument is inherently flawed, as it is nearly impossible to enter the European Union and the UK legally. In fact, in order to be classified as a “refugee” under international law, you must first find yourself outside of your country of origin.

Article 1 of the 1951 Convention defines a refugee as someone who

"owing to well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of [their] nationality and is unable or, owing to such fear, is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail [themself] of the protection of that country; or who, not having a nationality and being outside the country of [their] former habitual residence, is unable or unwilling to return to it."

That means, in order to “legally” apply for asylum (or express your wish to do so) and qualify for refugee status, you must first leave your country of origin and cross into another, before entering a procedure that would “legalize” your status.To protect this process international law grants everyone the right to “leave their country” including their own. This inherently implies that the crossing of international borders is not illegal under international law.

In addition, people might be labeled as “illegal” if they have “lost” their legal status or documentation, due to misinformation, administrative delays, or as a result of being exploited. Their being undocumented is a result of them falling victim to a system and not due to causing a criminal offense. Moreover, being undocumented does not constitute a crime, as the term “illegal” would insinuate, as it is not an offense against a person, property, or national security but would belong to the realm of administrative law.

Beyond the legal inaccuracy, the term is inherently harmful as this characterizes a person's existence as something illegal or criminal. This provides an entrywayinto equating people on the move (migrating persons) with criminals and using them as scapegoats. This quote from Suella Braverman, UK Home Secretary, illustrates this:

“I tell you who’s at fault, it’s very clear who’s at fault, it’s the people who are breaking our rules, coming here illegally, exploiting vulnerable people, and trying to reduce the generosity of the British people – that’s who’s at fault.”

This kind of rhetoric is extremely harmful, as it not only justifies policies that violate the individual human right to seek asylum but also leads to further isolation of people on the move and inhibits efforts to foster integration.

To avoid feeding into anti-immigrant rhetoric and reducing people's existence to their legal status, it is important to question terminology and understand what purpose the use of a certain term fulfills. This is not only important when producing but also when consuming media around this migration and asylum, as language has the power to create heat and emotion.

The term “irregular” has been proposed to replace “illegal” as a less contentious adjective. While this is a “safer” choice, it still does not fully acknowledge that “regular” pathways into Europe are close to zero. Generally, it is important to remember that we are talking about people, with stories, skills, and aspirations whose legal status does not define them, nor does it remain the same forever. To address some of the confusion around terms such as migrants, asylum seekers, displaced people, refugees, people on the move, etc. we will dedicate some future blogs to explaining these terms. Stay tuned!

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