Words Matter

“Illegal Immigration”

How many “illegal immigrants” are in the UK?

no one is illegal

The answer is zero. “Illegal” immigrants do not exist. “Illegal immigration” does not exist. Read on to understand why:


We reject the word “illegal” to describe undocumented migrants. This word is dehumanising, immoral, and contributes to the demonisation of migrant communities.

The word is dehumanising and reductive, and an insult to the struggle and arduous experiences that migrants, including refugees and people seeking asylum, may have been through. Legal status is also arbitrary and often does not coincide with morality. The word also contributes to increased hostility towards migrant communities, and insinuates that they are undeserving of rights. The word is also used to scapegoat migrants who are forced into unsafe routes, when the outrage should really be directed towards government failures to provide safe routes.


How can we show solidarity towards migrants? It is so important to uplift the migrant experience: and this starts with the language that we use.

We should use the terms “undocumented migrants”/ “irregular migrants” instead. This language emphasises the structural violence of bordering, and universalises the migrant aspiration for dignity: an aspiration that we all share.

The language of “undocumented” or “irregular” sheds light on the struggle that migrants face as they navigate the violence of border regimes. This language thus allows for a focus on the structures that force migrants into unsafe routes.


The term ‘illegal’ to define people moving across borders has been condemned by both the United Nations and the European Union. The negative connotations of the term has been highlighted while emphasising the need to utilise the term “irregular” or “undocumented” migrants. 

The terms ‘undocumented’ or ‘irregular’ emphasises the difficulties, nuances and complexities that cause people to lose status or become displaced, including exploitation or having their documents lost or destroyed by others. Everyone has the right to leave a country and claim protection. 

“Let me be clear about my vocabulary too: illegal migrants do not exist. People may come to the EU and might be required to use irregular ways… but no human being is illegal.”- Cecilia Malmström, European Commissioner for Home Affairs, 29 November 2010

Migration is a natural facet of the human experience. It represents a hopeful aspiration for a more dignified life. By universalising the migrant experience, we can emphasise that we are all deserving of dignity. In doing so, we can shift the narrative away from “illegal immigration”, and express solidarity to those who are harmed by borders. In doing so, we can also shift the blame onto the structures that upend the right to dignity of the most marginalised communities. No human being is illegal.

To join the conversation, find our tweets, here and here. Don’t forget to like and share!



For more information on irregular or undocumented migration, check out the fantastic work of Regularise.

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