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“Illegal immigrants” do not exist. Analysis of the term

“Illegal immigrants” do not exist. Analysis of the term

Migration remains one of the main topics of public debate. The discussion on problems related to migration focuses primarily on changes in migration policies of European Union countries, internal security, as well as the situation on the borders of Poland with Belarus and Finland with Russia. The term “illegal immigrants” has become a permanent part of the language of public debate. However, not only is It misleading, but also steers away from the actual topic of the debate. In this text, we analyse this concept in the context of international law and human rights, and the effects of its use in public debate.

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Illegal immigrants under international law

At the very beginning, it should be clearly emphasised that a person cannot be “illegal”. Only the act committed by such person can be described as illegal. According to the Geneva Convention, crossing a border in an unregulated manner or without documents, if the reason was to obtain international protection, is not illegal. A person crossing the border acquires the rights of a person applying for international protection at the time of requesting for it. European Union law does not define the form of such a request. There is also no requirement to complete any administrative formalities – such a person is considered an applicant from the moment of expressing an oral request. Such an application for international protection may take place at the border of a given country, as well as outside the border crossing (judgement of the CJEU of 25 June, 2020).

Moreover, the provisions of the Geneva Convention clearly specify that crossing the border contrary to the regulations of a given country is not punishable (Art. 31):

1. The Contracting States shall not impose penalties, on account of their illegal entry or presence, on refugees who, coming directly from a territory where their life or freedom was threatened in the sense of article 1, enter or are present in their territory without authorization, provided they present themselves without delay to the authorities and show good cause for their illegal entry or presence.

2. The Contracting States shall not apply to the movements of such refugees restrictions other than those which are necessary and such restrictions shall only be applied until their status in the country is regularized or they obtain admission into another country. The Contracting States shall allow such refugees a reasonable period and all the necessary facilities to obtain admission into another country.

Furthermore, every person has the right to security and freedom from persecution and discrimination (as per the Universal Declaration of Human Rights).

Therefore, in the light of international law and human rights, criminalisation of refugees is considered to be a denial of the essence of international protection. The legality or illegality of a person’s stay in a given country is a purely legal matter, regulated by various provisions and legal acts. It does not result from the specific characteristics of a given person, their country of origin or ethnic group. The term “illegal immigrants” is also incorrect from a purely legal point of view, because in most countries, including Poland, not having documents entitling a person to stay in a given territory is not a crime.

Illegal immigrants in the infosphere

The term “illegal immigrants” is widely used not only in political disputes, but also in the language of institutions (e.g. the Police or the Border Guard). Sadly, the media are also regularly guilty of calling immigrants “illegal”. At the end of November, Gazeta Wyborcza in the text „Ciężarówka pełna nielegalnych imigrantów” (“A truck full of illegal immigrants”) informed about 13 people who were found under the trailer of a truck. The Polish Press Agency wrote about the record number of “illegal immigrants” who reached the Canary Islands by sea. In its article, Rzeczpospolita used the term “illegal immigrants” interchangeably with people with illegal residence. Gazeta Prawna informed about the start of relocation of “illegal immigrants” by the Spanish government.

In the language of the broadly understood right wing, the term “illegal immigrants” plays a special role. It is used not only descriptively, but primarily as a tool in political disputes. On the wPolityce.pl website, Jakub Maciejewski combines the ideas of workers’ revolution and communism with contemporary migrants. This is expected to lead to the collapse of Western culture. Just before the parliamentary elections on 15 August, Jacek Ozdoba (then deputy minister of climate and environment for PiS) recalled the political dispute from 2015 regarding the relocation of refugees (back then the government was formed by the PO-PSL coalition). Jarosław Kaczyński, in the program “Rozmowy Niedofinione” by Trwam television, presented (illegal) immigrants as a threat to Polish culture and internal security, which Donald Tusk was supposed to bring to Poland (by agreeing to the migration pact). The wPrawo.pl portal also used migration in the political fight, writing about illegal immigrants and the “multi-culti ideology” destroying Sweden. Right-wing media often use other derogatory terms. Unsurprisingly, the topic of migrants also appears on channels spreading pro-Kremlin propaganda and disinformation:

Nielegalni imigranci
Source: Telegram

More than just words

The language used in public debate is not just a matter of semantics. The way social reality is talked about has an actual impact on it. The first large group of refugees arriving in Poland since our country gained sovereignty in 1989 were the Chechens. The widespread sympathy of Polish society towards Chechnya (due to the fight against the Russian Federation) made Poland a natural destination for refugees from that country. As they arrived in Poland, social acceptance of this group increased, although the image of the Chechen was still based on stereotypes and prejudices. This lasted until the attack of 11 November, 2001 and the emergence of media reports about Chechen terrorist acts.

Historical and cultural factors as well as the geopolitical situation reinforced by Russian propaganda (labelling Chechens as Islamic terrorists threatening internal security) resulted in a radical turn against refugees. Polish society began to perceive Chechens as a “suspicious” community, which directly impacted relations between local communities and refugees, and influenced the development of policies towards migrants.

The so-called migration crisis brought a radical change in the discourse. Prior to 2015, the term “refugee” appeared in Polish public discourse primarily as a legal concept. Since then, the concepts of “illegal immigrant” and refugee have increasingly been used synonymously. The debate around migration and the use of the rhetoric of the “refugee crisis” in the campaign before the parliamentary elections in 2015 resulted in the radicalisation of both the language (for instance, Jaroslaw Kaczyński’s statement about refugees spreading diseases and parasites) and attitudes towards refugees, and an increase in reluctance to accept them. Within two years, the percentage of Poles opposed to accepting refugees from war-torn regions increased from 38% to 63%, while the percentage of people willing to provide assistance to refugees in Poland decreased from 56% to 33%.

 “Illegal immigrants” do not exist. Analysis of the term
Source: Telegram

The widespread use of the term “illegal immigrants” also contributes to the spread of disinformation and fake news. Through evoking strong emotions, this term strengthens, among others, the confirmation effect, i.e. the tendency to select information consistent with the recipient’s beliefs. Consolidation, repetition, and frequency of a given message, as well as speaking as an authority (e.g. a political representative of a group to which the recipient belongs) also have a direct impact on the resistance to disinformation and the spread of fake news. The form in which such disinformation is provided Is also an important factor. Content about migrants is often based on unverifiable sources, simplifications, appeals to emotions, and uses the effect of authority. On the FakeNews.pl website, we analysed disinformation regarding migration in July and August 2023. References to migration or refugees are very often used to spread pro-Russian disinformation.


Describing migrants as illegal is not just a linguistic simplification. Firstly, the term is incorrect in a purely legal sense. Secondly, it redirects the public debate on migration from key issues (causes, problems, opportunities and threats) to formal and administrative issues. Thirdly, it supports the spread of disinformation and fake news. Finally, it reinforces stereotypes and prejudices about migrants. Thus, the concept of “illegal immigrants” shapes not only the public debate, but also directly influences social processes.


UNHCR: https://www.unhcr.org/pl/wp-content/uploads/sites/22/2016/12/konwencja_genewska.pdf

TSUE: https://curia.europa.eu/juris/documents.jsf?num=C-36/20

PDPCz: https://www.unesco.pl/fileadmin/user_upload/pdf/Powszechna_Deklaracja_Praw_Czlowieka.pdf

BBNG: https://www.bbng.org/od-uchodzcow-do-nielegalnych-migrantow

Społeczeństwo polskie wobec diaspory czeczeńskiej 1994–2020.: https://apcz.umk.pl/DN/article/view/DN.2020.1.14/25551

CBOS: https://www.cbos.pl/SPISKOM.POL/2018/K_087_18.PDF

Science Direct: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1297319X22000306

Faknews.pl: https://fakenews.pl/spoleczenstwo/dziki-trener-migranci-i-postprawda-analiza-sierpniowej-dezinformacji/

Fakenews.pl: https://fakenews.pl/spoleczenstwo/uchodzcy-migranci-i-postprawda-analiza/


Socjolog. Interesuje się socjologia psychiatrii, społecznymi mechanizmami władzy oraz nauką o informacji. Lubi muzykę współczesną i eksperymentalną. Psi tata.