Banning bad words (‘illegal’)

Banning bad words (‘illegal’)

In the early 1990s it was not uncommon to refer to migrants unlawfully present in a country as ‘illegal aliens’. Lately, many international organizations and immigration advocates have been calling for more civilized terms.

Two weeks ago PICUM (the Platform for International Cooperation on Undocumented Migrants) launched a campaign to ban use of the term ‘illegal migrant’ and instead use ‘irregular migrant’ and/or ‘undocumented migrant’, including translations of these perceived correct terms in all EU languages. The terminology debate is nothing new, of course, and numerous international organizations, press associations, NGOs and academics have already banned the term ‘illegal’. The main argument for doing so is that ‘illegal’ has a strong criminal connotation, implying that the people concerned are engaged in illegitimate acts, which in turn sets the stage for the criminalisation of migrants. PICUM also argues that the term is dehumanising and legally incorrect, because although a migratory act could be illegal, it is simply not possible to be an illegal person (reflecting Elie Wiesel who stated “Kein Mensch ist Illegal”).

Bad words and the media

The media plays an important role when it comes to communicating constructs to the public, and the discursive element of media content largely shapes how people perceive certain issues. Numerous international media groups and news organisations have already adopted the word ‘irregular’ instead of ‘illegal’, including the Associated Press, the Australian Press Council and the Guardian. At the same time major news outlets like the New York Times and the BBC still use ‘illegal’. In popular public speech it seems that the majority of people still use ‘illegal’. There appears to be no consensus among journalists whether they should shy away from the term ‘illegal’ or keep using the terms their readers understand.

Bad words and Dutch newspapers

For a new study on the discursive contexts surrounding irregular migrants, we have been able to identify the terminology used by Dutch national newspapers. With the help of computer software, we analysed all newspaper articles on irregular migrants that appeared between 1999 and 2013, a total of 28,247. This made a few things clear. First, the Dutch equivalents for ‘irregular’ and ‘undocumented’ are rarely used by newspapers, whether it’s the direct literal translation or that proposed by PICUM (which translate more like ‘people without papers’ and ‘people without valid stay’). Instead, in more than a staggering 95 percent of the cases irregular migrants are referred to using the term ‘illegal’, and this is the case in both right-wing and left-wing newspapers. On top of that, the word illegal is used more often as a noun (‘illegals’) than as an adjective with other terms (‘illegal migrants’).

So while in many other countries various media have decided to stop referring to migrants as ‘illegal’, both left-wing and right-wing newspapers in the Netherlands not only continue doing so, but even prefer to use the term as a noun. Meanwhile, the debate around terminology seems to be largely absent in the Netherlands, where there is a strong tendency to stick to the terms that the public is familiar with. All in all, the Dutch seem to be stubborn in this respect, or are they being realistic? The underlying issue is of course what happens if we change terms. If an issue attracts dismissive attitudes, these are not likely to disappear by pushing a new term. It might take a couple of years before the term irregular immigrant will have taken on the same air that ‘illegal’ or illegal migrant has now and new organisations can start campaigning for new terms. What’s next?



Dear Wytzia, thanks for your reaction. Many academics have banned the term. But not all of them. Personally I have defended it for a long time for the same reasons you mention. To a certain extent I had to give up because of reviewers and Journal editors disagree(d). They prefer the rather vague term irregular. For the time being.

Wytzia Raspe

There is nothing like an "Untermensch" but there is illegal immigration. To try to find some name for it so it does not reflect what it is is ridiculous. When someone is referred to as an illegal alien this expresses his legal immigration status not his right to live. No asylumseeker, refugee or migrant with a resident permit will be called illegal person. The fact that in Dutch the word "illegaal" is used is merely short for "illegal alien" and that is quite clear to the general public.
To state that academics banned the term is quite premature. Maybe you guys did but I did not. Moreover when you teach students about the Dutch immigration laws it might be handy to use the words used in that legal framework. It is the law we teach and not some utopia. Being humanitarian does not come with fancy words but with actions and if people want to help illegal aliens they have to know the weapons they can use so know the legal framework like it is. Overly politic correctness by banning words is something for the United States.

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