Artillery Row

Weasel Words

Let’s not shy away from using the term ‘illegal’, says Theodore Dalrymple

Because of the economic crisis caused by the Covid-19 epidemic, or at any rate by the response to the epidemic, “A million undocumented migrants ‘could go hungry’.” So said a headline in the Guardian, quoting charities.

This might or might not be so; if it is so, I hope no one would wish it to be so. We do not want people to go hungry whoever they might be.

Nevertheless, my attention was caught by the word ‘undocumented’. This is surely a weasel word for illegal, and the use of weasel words usually implies bad faith, or at least a desire to leave something unsaid.

Let me add that I have every sympathy for illegal immigrants as individuals who illegally cross borders or remain illegally in countries in order to better their lives, and who otherwise do nothing illegal. Few resort to this mode of life without compelling reason. Nevertheless, much as I sympathise with them as individuals – and I met many when I was practising as a doctor – I do not think that we can simply accept as a policy that we have an endless duty to the unfortunates of the world, which is the view that lies behind the refusal to use the word illegal.

I accept that, being on our soil, and being unable for the moment to repatriate them, we have a moral obligation to feed the million (or whatever the true number is). But this obligation cannot include the use of euphemism to disguise from ourselves what their status in the country is. An illegal migrant, or immigrant, is not a undocumented migrant or immigrant any more than a shoplifter is an informal customer, or a burglar is an undocumented guest. The Guardian is like Mr Podsnap, who did not want to bring a blush to the face of the young person – or in this case, to the bien pensant liberal.

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