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Why we shouldn’t use the term “illegal migrant”

BMJ 2018; 363 doi: (Published 20 November 2018) Cite this as: BMJ 2018;363:k4885
  1. David Ingleby, affiliated researcher1,
  2. Raj S Bhopal, professor of public health2,
  3. Laurence Gruer, honorary professor of public health2,
  4. Allan Krasnik, professor of public health and director3,
  5. Paola Pace, senior project manager4,
  6. Roumyana Petrova-Benedict, senior regional migration health advisor5
  1. 1Centre for Social Science and Global Health, University of Amsterdam, Netherlands
  2. 2Usher Institute of Population Health Sciences and Informatics, University of Edinburgh, UK
  3. 3Danish Research Centre for Migration, Ethnicity and Health (MESU), Department of Public Health, University of Copenhagen, Denmark
  4. 4International Organization for Migration, Tunisia
  5. 5International Organization for Migration, Regional Office, Brussels.
  1. j.d.ingleby{at}

Talking about migration requires careful choice of words

Words have consequences, especially in situations where strong emotions, as well as social and political conflicts, are endemic. Raj Bhopal’s rapid response in The BMJ, in which he objected to the use of the phrase “illegal migrant” on the grounds that only actions, not persons, can be deemed illegal, merits further reflection and dissection.

Some people think that those who protest against this phrase are taking sides with migrants in conflict with the law, in a futile attempt to cover up what is going on. On the contrary: the very idea that a person can be illegal is incompatible with the rule of law, which is founded on the idea that everyone has the right to due process and is equal in the eyes of the law. Labelling a person as illegal insinuates that their very existence is unlawful. For this reason, bodies including the United Nations General Assembly, International Organisation for Migration, Council of Europe, and European Commission …

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