Reporting Guidelines

1.    Who is an undocumented/irregular migrant?

When referring to migrants the words “undocumented” and “irregular” are synonymous.
Undocumented migrants are those without a residence permit authorising their regular  stay in the country of destination. They may have been unsuccessful in the asylum procedure, have overstayed their visa or have entered irregularly.

It is PICUM’s experience that the routes to becoming an undocumented migrant are complex and often the result of arbitrary policies and discriminatory procedures over which the migrant has little or no control.

PICUM lobbies against the use of inaccurate terminology for migrants who have most times been made "irregular" through no fault of their own. This terminology distracts from the actual causes of the irregularity.

2.   What is the importance of  the correct terminology?

Migration comes under various forms. Reports on migration should use a broader terminology to describe different groups of migrants more accurately, therefore avoiding misunderstandings.

For example, there is no such thing as an “irregular asylum seeker” under international or national laws; asylum seekers can only become undocumented if the examination of their requests has been concluded and they have been denied asylum.

A few terms that are frequently misunderstood:

  • Undocumented or irregular migrants are individuals who enter a country without a visa or authorization by the authorities of the destination country and/or live in a country without a valid residency permit.
  • Asylum seekers are individuals who have applied for asylum and have not yet been granted or refused asylum.  While awaiting the outcome of their asylum application, asylum seekers are regularly staying in the country where their request is being examined.
  • People smuggling is always transnational, involves the consent of the smuggled individuals, and ends with the migrants’ arrival at their destination.  Profits are derived from the transportation or facilitation of the illegal entry of a person into another county.
    (Definition by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime.)
  • Human trafficking can occur regardless of whether individuals are taken to another state or moved within a state's borders and involves the ongoing exploitation of victims after arrival at their destination.  Trafficking victims have either never consented to be moved to another destination or, if they initially consented, that consent has been rendered meaningless by the coercive, deceptive or abusive action of the traffickers.  Trafficking profits are derived from exploitation.
(Definition by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime.)

3.   Why  report on undocumented migrants as individuals?
Broad generalisations and stereotyping only contribute to the dehumanisation of irregular migrants in the public’s consciousness and threatens migrants’ human rights.
The media can better inform their readers and viewers by reporting on migrants as individuals and by allowing them to present their stories to the public in the countries where they live.

4.   Why  use the terms “undocumented” or “irregular” instead of “illegal”?
PICUM is against calling migrants who have irregularly entered or are irregularly residing in a country “illegal” because:

  • It creates stereotypes, fear, and resentment.
  • It suggests criminality, but most irregular migrants are not breaking the law. Being in a country without the required papers is most  times ( depending on the country) the result of an administrative error, not a criminal offence.
  • It denies their humanity. Defining an individual or group as “illegal” risks violating their human right to recognition as a person before the law.
  • It is simplistic. People can find themselves in an undocumented or irregular status for all sorts of reasons, and many migrants arbitrarily fall from “regular” to “irregular” due to issues over which they have little or no control. For example, over-bureaucratic and deterring residence and work permit applications, as well as inefficient renewal procedures, are frequently reported.
  • It exacerbates the vulnerability of migrants, who often find themselves in very vulnerable positions and are often excluded from all forms of social and legal protection.
  • It can jeopardise the asylum claims of people fleeing repressive states where their rights are denied. Asylum seekers are often wrongly perceived as irregular migrants, but it is not illegal nor irregular to enter a country and claim asylum, because applicants for asylum receive a temporary residence permit. Calling any migrant who finds themselves in an irregular situation “illegal” encourages intolerance towards asylum seekers too.
  • No international legal text or treaty, from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights to the Geneva Convention refers to ‘illegal’ migrants. They do, on the other hand, say that our governments have a duty to treat all migrants with dignity and humanity.


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