Magazine article Forced Migration Review

Migration Terminology Matters

Magazine article Forced Migration Review

Migration Terminology Matters

Article excerpt

Current efforts to discuss and address the 'migration crisis' in Europe are marked by polemics, fed in part by imprecise and sometimes inflammatory terminology used to describe migrants. This also risks contributing to the erosion of migrants' rights.

The term 'crisis', which has routinely been used to describe migration to Europe during the course of 2015, should itself be subject to some scrutiny. Other countries, many of which have far fewer resources than Europe, have been facing acute versions of this migration flow for some time. As of midNovember 2015 Turkey, with a population of 76 million, was hosting 2,181,293 million Syrians - a ratio of 1 Syrian to every 35 Turks. In Jordan, the ratio of Syrians to Jordanians is approximately 1 to 10, and in Lebanon, the ratio is a compelling 1 to 5. It is important to keep a perspective on the scale of the 'crisis' in Europe.

Legal and illegal

Debate over terminology is not a question of political correctness, as it is sometimes characterised. It has real implications for migrants. Many people, including some members of the general public, journalists and government officials, reduce the entire body of migrants to only two categories: those who are 'legal' and those who are 'illegal'. This is a false dichotomy in more ways than one.

People cannot be illegal, only acts can. Furthermore, the word 'illegal' implies a juridical conclusion, without giving the individual migrant the benefit of pleading his or her case. In the realm of criminal law, if someone is accused of an unlawful act it is inappropriate for anyone - including and maybe especially journalists and politicians speaking in public - to refer to that individual as a 'criminal' before there is a finding of guilt. This is in keeping with the presumption of innocence. Yet, in the migration context, public figures routinely employ the term 'illegal', and it appears in respected news publications and in court decisions.

The term 'illegal', referring to lack of valid status, is often used to describe migrants who enter a territory clandestinely. However, this usage focuses a disproportionate measure of criticism on a group that makes up only one part of migrants without valid status. Worldwide, the single largest category of migrants without valid status is of those who entered a country legally and then stayed longer than their authorised period of admission. These over-stayers make up the bulk of the so-called 'illegal' migrant population.

The UN Special Rapporteur on the human rights of migrants has emphasised that the irregular entry onto a territory should be only an administrative offence, not a criminal one. The International Organization for Migration and other international organisations have long promoted use of the term 'irregular' instead of 'illegal', following the recommendation the UN General Assembly made in 1975.1

Smuggling and trafficking

Smuggling and trafficking need to be better understood as two distinct crimes. Differentiating between them continues to be a challenge for journalists and politicians alike. The distinction matters because victims of trafficking are entitled to a special set of protections under international and European law. If they are not correctly identified, those protections are not available to them. Trafficking requires intent to exploit a victim through means such as force, other forms of coercion, fraud or deception, and it does not necessarily involve legal or illegal crossing of a border. …

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