Why Is There A Need to Stop Using the Term 'Illegal Immigrant'

The constant labelling of people as illegal immigrants is a significant problem that has long plagued western countries such as the United States. Perhaps the ongoing human rights crisis gives India ample cause to understand the moral issues at stake in the language we use to address them.


When individuals are referred to as "illegal," they lose a significant amount of their humanity. It robs people of their integrity and humanity, that they deserve. When people referred to as "illegal," they are no longer treated as people and are instead viewed as criminals who have caused damage to society.


People begin to believe that the mere presence of undocumented immigrants is illegal. As we continue to imprison families in deplorable circumstances, a sizable portion of the voting population assumes that all is good because the ones that are imprisoned are "illegal."


Even human rights groups have called the term “illegal immigrant” a slur. The way this questionable attribution frames marginalized people seeking a better life is the most obvious example of this. Furthermore, the way the term illegal is used here is directed towards only one group of people: migrants.


India’s Recent Attempt at Deporting a Minor


When a team of Assam Police took a 14-year-old Rohingya girl, who'd been detained in India for 2 years, to the international border in Manipur for deportation this week, Myanmar refused to accept. In addition, her family was later discovered in Bangladeshi refugee camps.


She gained popularity as the very first-person India tried to deport since Myanmar's military coup; critics criticized the fact that a minor escaping violence was being sent back to even more violence.


Myanmar's immigration authorities, on the other hand, declined to recognize her, claiming that the checkpoint has been closed for the past year due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Furthermore, Myanmar officials informed the Indian authorities that the situation in their country does not warrant deportation.


With the girl, the police team returned to Silchar and returned her to the shelter home where she had been staying.


Government’s Stance on Immigrants


The government's firm stance holds out: the minor and more than 150 immigrant Rohingyas fleeing persecution in Myanmar and living in Jammu and other states, were deemed "illegal" and required to leave Indian territory.


The presence of Rohingyas in Jammu has been described as a danger to stability and a conspiracy to change the demographic character by several political parties and organisations in Jammu.


The Centre called Rohingyas "absolutely illegal migrants" who posed "serious threats to national security" during a Supreme Court hearing last week. The lawyer arguing for their expulsion told the judge that interfering with a diplomatic problem involving "illegal migrants" would set off "a dangerous trend."


The Change From ‘Illegal’ To ‘Undocumented’


The Associated Press, NBC, and ABC have also discouraged the use of the word "illegal immigrant," instead recommended the term "undocumented," reinforcing the notion that even language can be violent.


The Rohingya Crisis 


The Rohingyas did not flee to India and Bangladesh on the spur of the moment; as an oppressed ethnic minority in Myanmar, they have been subjected to genocide since 2017.


The Myanmar army's fight against the Rohingya has been dubbed "a textbook case of ethnic cleansing" by the United Nations. The displacement of Rohingyas is just as much a federal matter as it is a humanitarian one; however, by portraying their existence in refugee countries as illegal, the debate moves away from the people and their oppression and instead turns them into perpetrators of state violence.


Bangladesh, which has been at the forefront of the Rohingya influx from Myanmar, has declined to allow forcible returns and is carrying out its own dubious method of relocating Rohingyas to Bhasan Char, a newly created sediment island in the Bay of Bengal.


This can force Rohingyas in J&K, and possibly elsewhere in India, to live in a sub-jail for the rest of their lives, a state of improsnment that cannot be a solution to the conflict — even if it is mutually agreeable to both parties.


India’s Stance on Harbouring Refugees


The discussion of refugee rights and citizenship isn't recent. In 2017, India's Ministry of Home Affairs released an immediate notice to all states and union territories, instructing them to identify and deport Rohingya "illegal migrants" with immediate effect.


The Supreme Court expressed concern that it is the Rohingya's fear that once they are deported, they will be slaughtered. The Supreme Court claims that India can do nothing to stop it. India cannot become the international capital of illegal migrants, according to the Chief Justice.


Under international human rights law, a generally accepted principle asserts that people should not be returned to a country where they will face "torture, barbaric, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment, and other irreparable harm," as the Rohingyas will.


However, since India is not a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention, a global treaty aimed at securing the rights of refugees has no legal qualms in carrying out the latest deportation.


The Violence of Language


“The word ‘illegal’ in itself is evil and fundamentally wrong. There can be irregular migrants or undocumented migrants, not illegal human beings,” said Fazal Abdali an associate with the Human Rights Law Network.


Our linguistic comprehension has evolved to find better alternatives for certain problematic terms. We have found it better to use "oppressed" instead of "lower" when discussing the Indian caste system. Similarly, historians now tend to use "enslaved people" rather than "slaves."


Therefore, we need to find alternatives for terms such as illegal migrants that devalues and diminishes the humanity and dignity of a person.


Written by - Christeena George

Edited by - Adrija Saha

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