While the Independent Press Standards Organisation (IPSO) accepts that the conflation is inaccurate and that it causes confusion, the IPSO will not hold media organisations to account for the inaccuracy and will, instead, justify and defend the conflation.
Media organisations, media practitioners, journalists and the IPSO should adopt the Australian Press Council (APC) approach and admonish against the use of illegal immigrant when speaking or writing about people.
The Editors' Code
Clause 1 (Accuracy) of IPSO Editors’ Code says:
i) The Press must take care not to publish inaccurate, misleading or distorted information or images, including headlines not supported by the text.
ii) A significant inaccuracy, misleading statement or distortion must be corrected, promptly and with due prominence, and – where appropriate – an apology published. In cases involving IPSO, due prominence should be as required by the regulator.
iii) A fair opportunity to reply to significant inaccuracies should be given, when reasonably called for.
iv) The Press, while free to editorialise and campaign, must distinguish clearly between comment, conjecture and fact.
v) A publication must report fairly and accurately the outcome of an action for defamation to which it has been a party, unless an agreed settlement states otherwise, or an agreed statement is published.Why is it inaccurate to write or speak of illegal immigrants?
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees says,
Refugees are defined and protected in international law. The 1951 Refugee Convention and its 1967 Protocol ... defines who is a refugee and outlines the basic rights which States should afford to refugees.In other words, refugee is a legal term. To use the term in a way that gives it a meaning other than that which comes from international and domestic law is to use the term incorrectly.
The Refugee Convention and Protocol defines a refugee as
a person who “owing to well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country; or who, not having a nationality and being outside the country of his former habitual residence as a result of such events, is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to return to it.”Alternatively, as Andrew E. Shacknove (1985) puts it, “refugees are, in essence, persons whose basic needs are unprotected by their country of origin, who have no remaining recourse other than to seek international restitution of their needs, and who are so situated that international assistance is possible”.
Similarly, the Oxford English Dictionary defines a refugee as “A person who has been forced to leave their country in order to escape war, persecution, or natural disaster”.
The Refugee Council contextualises these definitions when it explains that in the United Kingdom, a person who has left their country of origin and has formally applied for asylum in another country but whose application has not yet been concluded is an asylum seeker and that a person is officially a refugee when they have their claim for asylum accepted by the government.
The Oxford English Dictionary defines an immigrant as, “A person who comes to live permanently in a foreign country.”
The dictionary does not define illegal immigrant.
The style guides of media organisations that include the Associated Press, the Australian Press Council, Al Jazeera, and the Guardian and Observer support the view that it is inaccurate to refer to people who, for example, come into the Britain in the back of lorries as illegal immigrants.
Irregular entry does not make a person who is seeking refuge an illegal immigrant because Article 31 of the Refugee Convention provides that,
The Contracting States shall not impose penalties, on account of their illegal entry or presence, on refugees who, coming from a country where their life or freedom was threatened in the sense of Article 1 [of the Convention], enter or are present in their territory without authorisation, provided they present themselves without delay to the authorities and show good cause for their illegal entry or presence.The UK is party to the Refugee Convention and Section 31 of the UK’s Immigration and Asylum Act 1999 gives effect, in UK law, to the provision of Article 31 of the Refugee Convention. The effect of this is that the UK, as a matter of law and practice, does not criminalise or prosecute or deport people who are seeking refuge solely because they entered the country through irregular means. This also means that a person who is seeking refuge and who enters the country through irregular means is not an illegal immigrant. That person remains a refugee within the 1951 Refugee Convention definition or, once they have formally applied for asylum and a decision on their application remains pending, an asylum seeker.
The Associated Press supports the view that it is incorrect, inaccurate and significantly misleading to describe people as illegal immigrants when, announcing revisions to its stylebook, it says:
The Stylebook no longer sanctions the term illegal immigrant or the use of illegal to describe a person. Instead, it tells users that illegal should describe only an action, such as living in or immigrating to a country illegally.
… Our goal always is to use the most precise and accurate words so that the meaning is clear to any reader anywhere.Similarly, in 2012, the Australian Press Council said:
Most entrants by boat without a visa do not seek to evade the authorities upon arrival. Instead, they seek to establish a legal right to stay as a refugee. Their position is very different from those people, including many who arrive with a short-term visa, who seek to remain permanently in the country on a clandestine basis (that is, "over-stayers").
In these circumstances, great care must be taken to avoid describing people who arrived by boat without a visa in terms that are likely to be inaccurate or unfair in relation to at least some of them. This can arise, for example, if the terms can reasonably be interpreted as implying criminality or other serious misbehaviour on the part of all or many people who arrive in this manner.
Depending on the specific context, therefore, terms such as "illegal immigrants" or "illegals" may constitute a breach of the Council’s Standards of Practice on these grounds. The risk of breach can usually be avoided by using a term such as "asylum seekers" although in some cases, of course, the context may require reference to their unlawful or unauthorised entry or their status as unlawful non-citizens pending determination of their claims (if they do not have bridging visas).In the UK, the Children’s Society explains further why illegal immigrant is an inappropriate and inaccurate way of talking about people who move from one country to another when it says:
The division of migrants into two mutually exclusive and exhaustive categories as either ‘legal’ or ‘illegal’ is not clear in practice or legal terms, nor does it conform to migrants’ own experiences and conceptions of their status. This term does little to promote an understanding of why different individuals and vulnerable groups, such as children and young people, refugees, torture survivors and victims of human trafficking, might find themselves in this country without documentation or a legal status . It is for this reason that the Associated Press removed the term ‘illegal immigrant’ from its style guide stating that ‘illegal’ can refer only to an action, not to a person. We agree with this approach and believe that no-one is ‘illegal’ least of all a child.Similarly, Lisa Matthews of Right to Remain says,
The term ‘illegal immigrant’ is inaccurate and dangerous. Even in the case of someone deemed to have committed an immigration offence by not having the correct papers, the person themselves is not ‘illegal’.
It is also a dehumanising phrase, treating all undocumented migrants as a homogenised mass instead of the reality: individuals with unique experiences and stories to tell, who have not had their right to be in the UK recognised, usually due to legal and bureaucratic barriers, and the government’s increasing criminalisation of migration. The United Nations and the European parliament have called for an end to using the term, promoting the use of ‘undocumented’ or ‘irregular’ migrants instead.Rebecca Moore of the Refugee Council reiterates that it is inaccurate to use refugee and illegal immigrant as synonyms when she says:
With the issue of immigration being extremely controversial, complex and always high up the news agenda, we believe it’s vitally important that reports on these issues strive to be accurate and precise and avoid the use of loaded terms. While a person’s actions can be illegal, it is not possible for a person themselves to be illegal.Based on all of the above, media organisations, media practitioners, journalists and the IPSO should stop using and admonish against the use of illegal immigrant when talking about people who are seeking refuge or those who have overstayed their visas.