Irregular vs. Illegal – Why Language Matters

By Serisha Iyar  From the Catalyst, Winter 2018

The ‘immigrant story’ has long been the basis on which Canadians unite to embrace multiculturalism. This narrative presents the idea that families from across the world seek out the True North with hopes of a better future for themselves and their children, a future that is contingent on reaching safety. Yet, the means through which this story of migration becomes fulfilled is often forgotten.

In 2015, a strong sense of enthusiasm existed among Canadians. The federal government seemed to be playing a leading role on the international stage by welcoming 25,000 Syrian refugees to Canada. However, as refugees continued to move to the forefront of the news, this enthusiasm was soon followed by an increase in anti-immigration ideology, which has revolved around refugees and the modes through which they seek asylum.

This shifting narrative indicates that there is a clear misinterpretation of both domestic and international law among Canadians. It also highlights targeted efforts to frame language around refugees to advance specific ideological perspectives.

And so, there exists today a clash between terminology that accurately represents the arrival of refugee claimants in Canada and rhetoric that does not. Whether it be politicians, journalists, or everyday Canadians, there has been an increased number of people describing those who cross into Canada between ports of entry as “illegal border crossers.”

The use of the term “illegal” is entirely inaccurate. Crossing a state border to make a refugee claim is legal in accordance with the United Nations Refugee Convention and the Canadian Immigration and Refugee Protection Act. To suggest that refugee claimants are taking part in some sort of unlawful activity is plainly untrue. This terminology has predominantly been used to describe refugees coming to Canada through the United States and has been advanced in large part due to ongoing challenges with the Canada-U.S. Safe Third Country Agreement (STCA).

The STCA is a policy that requires refugee claimants to make a claim within the first safe country in which they arrive. This means the United States has been marked as a country where refugees are protected and, therefore, it is deemed a safe country for refugees. Because of this policy, those in search of protection who no longer feel they are safe in the United States are forced to cross the border irregularly to make their refugee claim in Canada.

Rescinding the STCA would not only remove unnecessary barriers that refugee claimants face, but would also eliminate the space for language that intends to vilify refugees. When public figures and every day Canadians choose to forego the use of the accurate term ‘irregular’ in favour of “illegal,” they are responsible for contributing to a culture of fear and hatred towards refugees by insinuating that they are criminals. These terms are not interchangeable and have entirely separate impacts on perception.

It is worth noting, too, that the shift from enthusiasm to disapproval of refugees has also been associated with refugee claimants’ countries of origin. While there was a level of empathy and acceptance for those fleeing violence in Syria in 2015, the more recent wave of inland claimants from Nigeria and Haiti has received a less than a warm welcome.

Anti-Black racism has been ever-present in Canadian culture. Now, it has structurally enveloped itself around the concept of immigration through the lens of “the other.” Undermining the humanity of refugees serves to promote racist, anti-immigrant ideology, particularly towards Black refugees. It also wrongly suggests that refugees exist as fundamental threats to the security of Canadians.

The fact remains that refugees are persecuted people in need of assistance – they have survived unimaginable circumstances of danger and have had no choice but to leave their home countries.

Helping to create a narrative that echoes the realities refugees face, rather than one that relies heavily on false assumptions, is key in actively resisting a culture of fear-mongering and discrimination. The language used to portray these individuals and their circumstances is vital to shaping the way Canadians and governments respond to global migration.

This is bigger than semantics. Language matters.

Serisha Iyar is CPJ’s public justice intern on refugee rights. 

For more information on the STCA, read CPJ’s Reclaiming Protection report at cpj.ca/protect

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