More language nitpicking

I’m thinking that from now on I will refer to “unauthorised immigrants” rather than be complicit in the framing of these people as “illegal”. There is a huge difference between unauthorised activities and illegal activities, and particularly when applied to refugees the term “illegal” is factually inaccurate as far as I am aware – there is no law against refugees entering a country and seeking asylum, there are merely immigration regulations which asylum seekers have not (yet) abided by because they have not had the opportunity to do so until they are actually in the presence of the appropriate Australian bureaucrat.

Of course, some unauthorised immigrants may be illegally overstaying a visa, but as far as I can determine those are the only category of unauthorised immigrants who are actually doing anything “illegal”.

I’m open to correction on this if I am wrong.

Edited to add:
NB This post inspired by lots of different material I’ve read from many POC bloggers, and I just realised that I’ve never posted about it here before. Particularly some of brownfemipower’s work on her old website, which doesn’t seem to have survived her taking the old blog down, so unfortunately I can’t link to it.

Categories: language, Politics, social justice

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11 replies

  1. Well you need an appropriate visa for entry to a country of which you’re not a resident or citizen which suggests there is a statute on the books somewhere, so entry without that WOULD be illegal, just not necessarily criminal.

  2. See, I think that isn’t quite right, but I’ll wait for a proper lawyer to weigh in on it.
    AIUI, international law on refugees exempts them from normal visa requirements on entering the country.
    There is also surely provision for shipwrecks etc, where people who inadvertently arrive on the shore of a country that they did not intend to enter have not committed any form of illegal entry.
    The illegality comes with staying without an existing or applied-for valid visa, not in entering the country in the first place, AIUI.

  3. Quite so, TT, and it’s an interesting point.
    It’s very old international law now codified in the UN’s Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees that countries must offer asylum to people in need of protection (with significant exceptions, particularly war criminals). Refugee law makes it very clear that it’s never illegal for asylum seekers to cross borders.
    This of course is what was so outrageous about the previous Federal Government’s “excision” of Christmas Island and Ashmore Reef; it was a deliberate attempt to get around Australia’s international law obligations.
    As you say all this is very different from people who breach Australian immigration law by breaking their visa work restrictions or overstaying, or by deliberately seeking to move people for profit across borders ie. people-trafficking. Those are illegal acts for very good reasons.
    In general though it’s classically politically-loaded language to refer to an individual as “illegal”. Nobody’s mere existence is illegal. Well posted.
    Edit: please note I’m not a lawyer, just someone who’s done a lot of reading on Australian immigration history.

  4. (Looking at it a bit further, this may be somewhat off-topic for the specific immigration issues you are talking about – but I still think the link referenced is instructive. Here)
    YES tigtog!
    There is a link in my sidebar under “ILLEGAL is not a NOUN” with a journalistic guide on language about immigration.
    “Illegal” is a bit of a misnomer in the first place (are we “illegal citizens” when we speed, litter etc.?) and applying it as an identity encompassing the whole of a person — rather than a single action — is certainly not logical. But especially since it has become a slur, it is irresponsible to use such language.
    I’m not sure exactly what cultural issues AU faces re: immigration and how they differ from US — so there may not be quite the same considerations — but certainly the guide linked provides a good baseline for respectful language.
    They suggest “undocumented” immigrant or worker (preferably the latter, not all undocumented persons are immigrants — tho I’m always grated a bit w/ emphasis on “worker” as not all can work and that should not devalue them). The term is both more accurate and less bigoted (or associated with bigotry). So it’s more-or-less a no brainer.

  5. I take an almost trollish joy in replying to people who say “illegal immigrants” with “oh, you mean refugees/asylum seekers?” for exactly that reason 😀
    I would be interested to know where the law actually stands on it, but tbh even if it’s technically correct, there’s so much baggage there I’m happy to nah its use.

  6. Minna: as I mentioned, refugee/asylum seeker status is a very particular thing, not everybody who tries to cross a border without documents is a refugee, and not every refugee goes without travel documents. The Chilean Government, for instance, regarded General Pinochet’s residence in UK as illegal when he fled there, and wanted him deported back to Chile for trial, even though he’d complied with all of the UK’s rules.
    Amandaw and others: the most basic difference in terminology between Australia and the US is that in the Australian context “illegal immigrant” generally refers to people who haven’t arrived yet. Long-term illegal residence isn’t nearly as common in Australia as it is in the US or even the UK. For what it’s worth, even the Immigration & Citizenship Department here use “Unauthorised Arrival”, despite “illegal” being the unfortunate common-usage.
    …Notably in the [ahem] remarkable Navy-humour acronyms Suspectected Illegal Entry Vessels (SIEVs), and their passengers, Suspected Undocumented Non-Citizens (SUNCs).

  7. @liam
    I was mostly being flippant with the start of that comment, so its probably worth mentioning the remarks were always made in the context of the camps the gov’t set up (when was that, 2000? Idk), when the media conversations at the time were vacillating between “illegal immigrants” and “asylum seekers”, so I chose between those two the one that didn’t make me angry. (Being almost entirely in the context of the camps the gov’t set up, since that seems to be the majority of what we talk about re: unauthorised immigration. Or possibly I’m just watching the wrong channels :p) I also have a certain fondness for the term asylum seekers simply because it takes a bit more work to demonise a group who are explicitly referred to as in need of asylum.
    I’m a little in awe of the badness of those jokes, though.

  8. Right, I see what you meant.

    I also have a certain fondness for the term asylum seekers simply because it takes a bit more work to demonise a group who are explicitly referred to as in need of asylum.

    Definitely, though alas, there are no shortage of people up to the challenge.

  9. Tangential! But this post at brownfemipower’s suggests the possibility of her old posts being available again. I don’t know about anyone else but I am really friggin excited about that possibility.

    • Oh yeah, me too. I’m glad she’s already had some offers of assistance because I’m swamped at the moment and although I could help it’s not my primary area of expertise.

  10. Definitely, though alas, there are no shortage of people up to the challenge.
    The UK is full of them.

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