“Irregular migrants?” That’s a new one.
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 withirregular 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”.