Maria Giovanna Manieri of the Platform for International Cooperation on Undocumented Migrants (PICUM) on why the choice of terminology matters and how it affects policy.

’If the foreigners were described as undocumented, the use of coercive force against them might be harder to justify. The language of criminalisation assists in justifying the deployment of coercive enforcement techniques in the field’.

Council of Europe, Issue Paper - Criminalisation of Migration in Europe: Human Rights Implications, February 2010

The choice of correct terminology is crucial, as often language contributes to shape the reality which national authorities present to their societies and the world. In a context where the use of language associates the concepts of migration and criminality, irregular migration becomes intrinsically linked with security concerns. Being considered ‘illegal’, undocumented migrants have frequently been denied their fundamental rights, including the right to health care, the right to education, the right of access to justice and redress and the right to family unity.

The perception that someone is ‘illegal’ can have an enormous impact, by leading the general public to accept policies that violate undocumented migrants’ rights. Hostile terminology can lead to discriminatory behaviour, hinder public acceptance of migrants, and exacerbate social exclusion.

The need to advocate for fair language has also been underlined by academics, who have argued that the use of negative terminology:

“gives no recognition to the fact that for many irregular migrants their first entry into the country was lawful, and that their slide into an unauthorised situation may not have been entirely their fault…it also downplays or even overlooks the calmer assertion that every human being has recognition before the law and possesses fundamental human rights, which are protected by major international and regional human rights instruments…which apply to everyone within the jurisdiction of state parties”.*

Moreover, defining an individual or group as ‘illegal ’is erroneous and incorrect from a legal point of view, as neither could an individual be considered by nature as ’illegal’, nor have the individuals necessarily committed a criminal offence under national laws. ‘Illegality’ as a status is only applied to migrants, and is used to deny them their rights.

Preferring the use of ‘undocumented’ or ‘irregular’ rather than ‘illegal’ is a position that is increasingly being taken by a multitude of actors, including the United Nations, the Council of Europe, the European Parliament, and the European Commission, as well as numerous non-governmental organisations, local authorities, professionals from diverse fields, media and undocumented migrants themselves.

The Platform for International Cooperation on Undocumented Migrants (PICUM) is an international non-governmental organisation (NGO) that represents a network of around 140 organisations working with undocumented migrants in 33 countries, primarily in Europe as well as in other world regions. With nearly 15 years of evidence, experience and expertise on undocumented migrants, PICUM promotes recognition and realisation of their human rights, providing an essential link between local realities and the debates at policy level. PICUM provides regular recommendations and expertise to policy makers and institutions of the United Nations, the Council of Europe and European Union, and has been awarded participatory/ consultative status with both the United Nations and Council of Europe.