‘Illegal immigrant’ is a dehumanising term. Indian media must stop using it

A person can never be illegal.

WrittenBy:Rejimon Kuttappan
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The citizenship law and the pushback against it have returned the term “illegal migrant” to news headlines. Googling “illegal CAB” yields over 8,91,000 results under the news tab. A search for “irregular CAB”, on the other hand, provides only about 11,700 results. This shows that only a few Indian media organisations are using the term “irregular” or “undocumented” to define a person who has entered and is staying in this country without proper documentation. They are instead using the term “illegal” which implies criminality, and is thus dehumanising.

Not just the media, even the Gazette Notification for the Citizenship Amendment Act uses the term “illegal” twice to define an irregular migrant, whereas the Citizenship Act of 1955 uses the term thrice.

In 2009, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights declared that the term “illegal immigrants should be avoided and replaced by the internationally accepted definitions of ‘irregular’ or ‘undocumented’ migrants, which more accurately describe the situation”. The same year, the European parliament called on the European Union’s institutions and its member states to stop using the term “illegal immigrant”, which has negative connotations, and instead use “irregular/undocumented workers/migrants”.

Taking a cue from such advisories, several international media outlets stopped referring to “illegal migrants” in 2013, including the news agency Associated Press. The agency’s stylebook states that it won’t sanction the term “illegal immigrant”, or the use of illegal to describe any person. Save for in direct quotes essential to the story, the stylebook says, illegal should only refer to an action, not a person: “illegal immigration” but not “illegal immigrant”. 

The New York Times stylebook too discourages the term “illegal immigrant”, while cautioning against the potentially euphemistic “undocumented” and “unauthorised”.

According to François Crépeau, UN Special Rapporteur on the human rights of migrants, “Migrants may be irregular or in an irregular situation, but they are not ‘illegal’.” “Incorrect terminology contributes to negative discourses on migration, reinforces negative stereotypes against migrants, and legitimates a discourse of the criminalisation of migration which in turn contributes to further alienation, marginalisation, discrimination, and violence against migrants,” Crépeau argues.

According to the International Organisation of Migration, an irregular migrant is a “person who, owing to unauthorised entry, breach of a condition of entry, or expiry of his or her visa, lacks legal status in a transit or host country. The definition covers inter alia those persons who have entered a transit or host country lawfully but have stayed for a longer period than authorised or subsequently taken up unauthorised employment”. 

The term “irregular” is preferable to “illegal” because the latter carries a criminal connotation, and is seen as denying the migrant’s “humanity”. The organisation, however, notes that there is no universally accepted definition of irregular migration.

From the host nation’s perspective, it means a person’s “entry, stay or work without the necessary authorisation or documents required under immigration regulations”. From the perspective of the migrant’s home country, the irregularity is, for example, seen in cases where they cross an international boundary without a valid passport or travel document or do not fulfil the administrative requirements for leaving the country.

There is, however, a tendency to restrict the use of the term “illegal migration” to cases of smuggling of migrants and human trafficking.

In the main, this concept originates from the UN General Assembly Resolution 3449 on “measures to ensure the human rights and dignity of all migrant workers”, passed in December 1975. The General Assembly had requested the United Nations organs and specialised agencies concerned to utilise in all official documents the term “nondocumented or irregular migrant workers to define those workers that illegally and/or surreptitiously enter another country to obtain work”.

According to the Platform for International Cooperation on Undocumented Migrants, 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,” it says.

The PICUM, a network of organisations working to ensure social justice and human rights for undocumented migrants, points out that language shapes people’s perceptions and discriminatory language about undocumented migrants leads to perceptions and actions that negatively impact the daily realities of undocumented migrants. 

“PICUM, therefore, uses the terms ‘undocumented’ or ‘irregular’ migrants. The term ‘illegal migrant’ should never be used because it implies criminality. A person can never be illegal. Migration is not a crime. Illegality as a status is only applied to migrants and used to deny them their rights and it has real impacts on policy and public perception. Inaccurate language leads society to accept that people should be prosecuted and punished,” it says.

It’s high time the Indian media adopted fair terminologies while reporting on migrants.


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