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Exiling the 'illegal immigrant'

The media is largely responsible for fuelling racist and xenophobic sentiments. Yes, I’m the first to admit it. Some news organisations have been responsible for driving racist stereotypes of African migrants, often without realising it.

Some years back, I recall a front-page headline of a leading Maltese daily screaming out: ‘Black prostitutes at Ħal Far’. Of course, it triggered alarm among the Maltese who only see black Africans as distributors of big diseases with a little name, conveniently overlooking the beautiful, tall Eastern Europeans loitering the street corners.

Like many other news organisations, I confess that The Times in the past made the same error in using the term ‘illegal immigrant’, which dehumanised asylum seekers and in reality was linguistically inaccurate.

It was therefore a major relief to learn that the Associated Press, the largest news-gathering outlet in the world, was ditching the term ‘illegal immigrant’ from its style book.

The decision was simple - AP chose it wise to stop labelling people from the outset, realising people should be judged on their behaviour.

Since AP’s decision last Wednesday, other news organisations have followed suit. The Times and The Sunday Times of Malta has gradually phased out the term over the past couple of years, though many derive great pleasure in using the term ‘illegal immigrants’ when commenting on the online forum.

Phasing out the term in Malta will not be easy, especially in a country bent on stereotypes where individuals go as far as calling asylum seekers “clandestines”, even “parasites” and “scroungers”.

Generally speaking, ‘illegal immigrants’ are people who enter a country without meeting the legal requirements. However, the 1948 Universal declaration of human rights dictated that everyone has the right to seek asylum and the 1951 Refugee Convention prohibits countries from imposing penalties on those entering ‘illegally’ who come directly from a territory where their life or freedom is threatened.

The UNHCR emphasises that a person who has a well‐founded fear of persecution should be viewed as a refugee and not be labelled an ‘illegal immigrant’ as the very nature of persecution means their only means of escape may be via illegal entry or the use of false documentation.

It is up to the local media to take AP’s cue, follow it, and explain why we are doing so. Avoiding the word ‘illegal’ could do wonders to eradicate the perception that these people are criminals simply because they are landing in Malta on rickety boats rather than five-star cruise liners.

When openly xenophobic business mogul Donald Trump said he cannot figure out what to call ‘illegal immigrants’ after the AP decision, EU Commissioner Cecilia Malmström tweeted with a question. She hit the nail on the head.

 “How about calling them people?” 

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