Ministers have been accused of “stoking tension and division” with comments on migrant boat crossings in the English Channel.
Boris Johnson has called the journeys “very bad and stupid and dangerous and criminal”, while a former royal marine has been put in the new post of “clandestine Channel threat commander”. Priti Patel, the home secretary, called crossings “totally unacceptable” and government statements have repeatedly labelled them illegal.
An official UNHCR document on terminology states that the term “illegal migrant” is legally incorrect and “dehumanising”, adding: “The word ‘illegal’ depicts migrants as dishonest, undeserving, and criminals who are a threat to the public good. This normalises the use of punitive measures, enforcement, and procedures to punish and deter irregular migrants."
The Refugee Council said the term “illegal migrants” should not be used to describe vulnerable people seeking safety and protection. Its director of advocacy Lisa Doyle said: “This unhelpful language can stoke tension and division, at a time when we need the government to show strong, compassionate and responsible leadership on asylum policy.”
The Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants said the continued use of the word “illegal” was “dehumanising, wrong, and seems calculated to whip up anti-migrant sentiment”.
Its legal policy director Chai Patel added: “People have a legal right to cross borders without documents in order to seek asylum. No human being is illegal, and this language wrongly leads to a perception that migrants should be prosecuted and punished, instead of treated with the dignity and respect everyone deserves.”
Charity Refugee Action accused the government of “overt and aggressive hostility” towards asylum seekers crossing the channel by boat. “It is making a bad situation dramatically worse,” said chief executive Stephen Hale. “Their language shows no understanding and no compassion for people who have come from violent and oppressive countries and suffered in ways that are beyond many of our imaginations. This language is also certain to exacerbate the anxiety felt by many people already in the UK who have claimed asylum, and to give cover to those who may wish them harm.”
Anne McLaughlin, co-chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Refugees, told The Independent it was “not illegal for people to cross the Channel” using irregular routes. “The language seems very deliberate and ideological about views that people need to be seen as not human, but criminal,” she added. “I don’t believe for a minute that they’re not aware that using language like ‘Channel threat commander’ will make the public see people as a threat.”
She called the prime minister’s comments on “dangerous and criminal” crossings “vile”, adding: “It’s intended to sow division. As far as I can see, what the government is concerned about is building walls to stop people getting into the Channel and not about tackling the root causes,” she added.
Laura Padoan, a spokesperson for the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), said “We should respond with humanity rather than hyperbole.”
David Simmonds, the Conservative co-chair of the APPG on Refugees, urged the government to bolster “robust legal routes” to seek asylum in order to bring the situation under control. Simmonds said “a lot” of migrants had already died attempting to reach the UK and the true number is unknown.
Extremist group Britain First has launched a “patrol boat” in the Channel and far-right activists have been harassing migrants at a reception centre in Dover.