I was in Malta last week, reporting on the problems the country is facing with illegal immigration. Large numbers of Africans are claiming asylum there after arriving on people trafficking boats from Libya, and the Maltese are up in arms about it. Actually, sorry, I got that wrong. Let me start again. I was reporting on the problems the country is facing with irregular immigration from Africa. Not illegal. There’s a difference, it seems. Let me explain.
“Illegal immigration” apparently carries connotations of criminality, of someone doing something wrong. Like, for example, paying a people smuggler €700 to transport them a rickety boat that might sink with the loss of all on board. Whereas “irregular” is a more “neutral” term. Probably all the same to you and me.
Except it’s not. According to the office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees in Malta, which gave me a leaflet about what words to use when discussing this issue, it’s wrong to use the term “illegal”. The reason is that most of those who arrive in Malta claim asylum, and even though they are locked up while their claims are processed, that detention is “administrative and not criminal”. Also frowned upon is the word “clandestine”, which has a “strong negative connection, invoking a sense of criminality”. Instead, it recommends the phrase “irregular migrants”.
True, some American news organisations have followed the UN’s line on this one for a while. The Associated Press, whose house style book is highly influential, stopped using the words “illegal immigrant” in 2009. It was prompted partly by the heated debate over Hispanic migrants who have come entered the US illegally, some of whom have been living honest, hard-working lives for years and resent being defined solely as “illegal”. That’s perhaps a fair point, although AP’s move has also inspired a gag on Twitter called #NewAPStyle, dedicated to thinking up bland terms for existing words. A murderer, for example, might instead be a “person accused of unlawfully ceasing the life of another”.
For the record, though, I myself stuck to using the word “illegal” in my report. Why? First of all, I am a hack. My primary obligation is to my readers, so I prefer, where possible, to use the language that they tend to use, rather than that which certain official bodies might prefer me to. For one thing, if we had to pay attention every time an official organisation or lobby group wrote to us asking for us to use this preferred phrase or that, our house style would be twice as thick as it is, and we’d probably never get the newspaper out. But also, “illegal” was the phrase that most of the people I spoke to in Malta used – not just the residents but the migrants themselves.
Besides, if the word “illegal” carries certain connotations, does the word “irregular” not also do so? An “irregularity” with someone’s immigration status suggests a simple, easily rectifiable problem, a glitch in one’s paperwork perhaps. As opposed, perhaps, to having no paperwork at all. It suggests something that is not a big deal.
Which, whatever side of the immigration debate you stand on, is not how the Maltese see it. In the space of just ten years, a country of 400,000 people currently has become home to 5,000 illegal immigrants, many of them near destitute when they arrive. Which, given that it is roughly 150 times smaller than Britain, is the equivalent of 750,000 coming to the UK’s shores. It is a major issue, whether you are worried about the risk of anti-immigrant attacks, as refugee workers are, or about creeping “Africanisation”, as Maltese in some neighbourhoods are. Much as the UNHCR might not like it, for many Maltese, there is simply no desire to see this problem in “neutral” fashion.
Nor, to play the UNHCR at its own game, is using the word “illegal” necessarily derogatory. It simply describes the manner of their arrival in the country. Indeed, hearing some of the immigrants’ hideous tales of crossing first the Sahara and then the Mediterranean, and seeing their fellow travellers die or drown en route, one cannot help but be impressed by their sense of motivation. But it is fair comment to call that journey an illegal one, and the gangs who facilitate such trips represent a particularly ruthless breed of criminality.
Ask the Somalis who use the services of people-smuggling gangs to go across the Gulf of Aden to Yemen, for example. As I discovered on a trip out there with the Royal Navy a few years ago, the gangs’ standard escape tactic if approached by a naval boat is to throw several passengers overboard, knowing the ship would have to stop to pick them up first while they got away.
Make no mistake, people traffickers are the modern day equivalent of slave traders, the only difference being that these days, they have sidelines in drugs and weapons smuggling too. Yes, of course they are more culpable than the people they exploit, just as heroin traffickers get heavier sentences than heroin addicts. But to describe their cargo as simply “irregular” rather than illegal is a sophistry that risks detracting from the very real criminality of what they do.
In fairness to the UNHCR in Malta, its response to the recent illegal immigration row has been a measured one. Rather than simply denouncing anti-immigration sentiment as “racist”, the organisation has done awareness programmes and public opinion surveys across Malta, much of which at least acknowledges that there is a debate to be engaged in. But that is where attempts at Orwellian Newspeak about using the word “irregular” rather than “illegal” are liable to backfire. If you’re going to have an honest debate with people about immigration, at least let them choose their own terms.