The power of words – Here we go again with “illegal”!

Just before the dramatic resignation of the Immigration Minister Mark Harper, which has equally dramatically increased the use of the term illegal immigrant’ in the public space, our contributor Panos Christodoulou pondered over the use of the term in everyday life.

Sadly for migrants and all their defenders, it seems that the government is determined to pass the new Immigration Bill.  Although there is strong criticism against it and many stakeholders have already urged that it creates a really hostile environment for migrants, those who have instigated the Bill defend it by arguing that its purpose is just “a fair immigration system”.  For more details, you can read Home Secretary Theresa May’s quotation on the Bill: “it is not just about making the UK a more hostile place for illegal migrants;” she said, “it is also about fairness”.  Immigration Minister Mark Harper MP views the Bill as being “tough on those who abuse the system and flout the law” and argues that the law will “reduce the pull factors which draw illegal immigrants to the UK” (etc, etc).  So, here we go again with “illegal”!

Actually, Theresa May and Mark Harper are right; there are illegal migrants! Let’s avoid any thorough legal analysis and let’s simply admit that there are rules and laws regulating the entrance to the UK.  Anyone who enters the UK without following the regular procedure is violating the law, so he or she is illegal.  However, there are many other people that disobey rules everyday and we don’t use the term “illegal” for them, don’t we? For example, we don’t say “illegal drunk driver”, probably because only actions can be illegal, not human beings.  So, why should we use this term for migrants?

There are many words with an absolute negative meaning and Theresa May and Mark Harper, along with many media, seem to love using them in their rhetoric.  Among these derogatory terms is the word “illegal”.  Let’s be honest; when we hear this word describing someone, there is no chance that we consider him or her as a nice, good and peaceful person.  It is a fact that when people are described as “illegal”, the audience’s perception of them is always negative.  In the audience’s mind, usually, “illegal migrants” are much more than those who just failed to follow the travel regulations; they are serious criminals, who arrived in our land determined and ready to steal, rape, murder and do various other evil things.

In a non-angelic world, of course there are criminals among migrants and refugees and some of them are settled in the UK.  But, honestly, is it the case that all migrants are villains? Is it fair to characterise and generalise all those living in or entering the UK irregularly as “illegal migrants”? What about those who are trying to avoid human rights violations and extreme poverty?

Taking a random tour of different media’s websites on any one day, you will find numerous articles dealing with tough situations in many different parts of the world. For example, on 16th December 2013, on BBC’s site alone there were three different articles; the first one was on the suffering of Syrians and the lack of basic provisions, such as bread, due to the ongoing war. There was also an article on the continuing trauma experienced by the family of the Indian woman who  was fatally gang-raped.  Finally there was an article for the measures that the Home Office proposed to tackle human trafficking. On the same day, on The Times’ website there was an article on modern slavery and an article on the fear for their lives that the family and associates of the executed senior bureaucrat Chang Sung Taek are facing in North Korea.  On The Independent’s site there was an article on female genital mutilation and finally on The Guardian website there was an article on the recent attempted coup in South Sudan.

By reading the above articles you can have a slight taste of how harsh life is for many people worldwide and of some of the reasons why they choose to flee.  When these people arrive undocumented at our doorstep they are “illegal migrants”, according to political rhetoric. But is it their choice?  If they had a choice, do you think that they would violate any travel regulations? It is unlikely they would travel at all if no extreme situation had made them leave. In addition, when you are forced to leave, following regular procedures and travel regulations is just a luxury.

Do you expect people to travel with a passport and valid visa when they urgently abandon the bloodbath and the turmoil (e.g. Syria) or the absolute hunger (e.g. sub-Saharan Africa)?  Do you honestly think that, in countries where FGM is an obligatory tradition or in countries where rape is an everyday occurrence (e.g. in India, where a rape is reported every 21 minutes), girls who try to escape cruelty can easily gain access to proper travel documents?  Do you believe that victims of trafficking have their passports in their possession?  Finally, do you imagine that people from North Korea can get the regime’s permission and leave their country?

All these people are not criminals.  They are traumatized and desperate human beings who are seeking out hope in a safe country (such as the UK) and who, usually, don’t make it (remember, migrants and refugees drown every day in the Mediterranean Sea).  These people need our aid, assistance and compassion.  In any case they don’t deserve the cruel term “illegal immigrant”.  A term which is dehumanizing and derogatory.

It is certain that politicians know the power of their words. They are aware that, by using the term “illegal migrant” (a term that Associated Press and other media decided to drop from their style guide), they are stigmatizing migrants without any exception, as well as incorrectly labeling anyone in the UK without the required documentation as a criminal. By doing so, they do not protect UK citizens’ safety nor do they offer them any other valuable service conducive to public good. They just facilitate society’s rapid transformation into a xenophobic and racist one.

In any case, if they desperately want to call someone a criminal, they should start with those security guards (who mistreated an immigrant during a forced deportation which led to his death), officials (who sexually assaulted people in detention and removal centers), rogue landlords (who keep undocumented migrant tenants in poor conditions under threat of being reported to the authorities), employers (who exploit undocumented migrants), human traffickers and many others.

There are many more “illegals” out there, and they are not migrants.

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