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Journalist's Corner

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.

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)

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.

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.

Why Not “Illegal”?

=> Inaccurate
– Legally incorrect
– Misleading
– Ignores international legal obligations
– Violates principle of due process
– Inaccurate to describe people arriving at borders

=> Harmful
– Dehumanizing
– Criminalizing
– Prevents fair debate
– Threatens solidarity and costs lives
– Undermines social cohesion

=> Against Europe’s Values
– Discriminatory
– Oppressive
– Out-dated


Media Code of Ethics amended to guide media. How to cover migration and asylum issues

Following consultations with the Cyprus Media Ethics Committee  (CMEC), UNHCR Cyprus announces that the Code of Media Ethics has been amended to guide media, through specific principles, how to cover migration and asylum issues.

The guiding principles, titled “Dealing with issues relating to migrants, asylum-seekers, refugees and victims of trafficking”  (available only in Greek) form an integral part of the code itself They  aim at elaborating the anti-discrimination clause 12 of the Code, which calls the Media to avoid any direct or other reference or action against a person which contains elements of prejudice on the basis of race, colour, language, religion, political or other conviction, or other special characteristics; and to guide media on how issues relating to migration and asylum should be covered.

Through this amendments the Code reflects now international good practices, such as the Charter of Rome, and the suggestions made by the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe in its 2006 report on media coverage of asylum and migration issues. The new guiding principles consist among others of provisions with regards to: the use of appropriate terminology (and the definitions of asylum-seeker, refugee, subsidiary protection, human trafficking victim, migrant, irregular migrants are included therein); protection of identity safeguards .They also call media, among others, to  avoiding spreading inaccurate, simplified or distorted information as regards migratory groups; avoid portraying the origin or status when this element is not a component of the story; and to consult experts and organisations with the related specific expertise when covering such issues.

This new development suggests that on the basis of these guidelines  the CMEC may decide – further to an examination either on its own motion or upon the submission of a complaint – that a particular media coverage was inappropriate and contrary to the Code.

Πρόσφατες αποφάσεις της Επιτροπής Δημοσιογραφικής Δεοντολογίας / Recent decisions of the Cyprus Media Complaints Commission
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