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Debunked: Why terms like 'illegals' and 'people trafficking' mischaracterise the asylum system

The terms “illegal males” and “trafficking centres” went unchecked on social media.

CANDIDATES IN THE recent local elections who ran on far-right anti-immigration platforms repeatedly described asylum seekers as “illegals” and housing for asylum seekers as “people trafficking centres” in the run up to the vote.

Both descriptions are wrong and mischaracterise Ireland’s asylum system.

People who apply for asylum are legally allowed in Ireland while their application is being processed, and “people trafficking” has a specific legal meaning akin to slavery or severe exploitation which is not related to the provision of shelter.

People with fringe views on immigration often rely on conspiracy theories, fake claims of criminality, or misleading terminology to inflate the perceived threat immigration poses, as well as to imply that the current government or system is unable or unwilling to tackle immigration issues. 

Derek Blighe, who ran for election in both the European and local elections, repeatedly referred to asylum seekers as “illegals” and “illegal males”, while Philip Dwyer, who ran in the Tallaght Central local elections repeatedly called migrant accommodation “people trafficking centres”.

“Protesters open up to Gardai about their fears about 700 illegal males,” Derek Blighe, the leader of Ireland First, a political party that failed to get any candidates elected, wrote on Facebook on 19 May.

Blighe wrote this in response to rumours that a former hospital could be used to house asylum seekers.

However, this was not the only time that Blighe falsely claimed that asylum seekers were illegal — he used the same terms regularly, also writing on 25 May about a “former Gaelscoil being filled with illegal males” and on 17 May about an area that was “about to receive huge numbers of illegals” — in reference to asylum seekers or Ukrainians.

Neither asylum seekers or Ukrainians being housed by the state in Ireland are “illegal”.

“Any person who has an application pending with the Immigration Authorities, including the International Protection Office, would have an entitlement to remain in the State while that application was being assessed,” the Department of Justice said.

Ukrainians are allowed to reside in Ireland under Irish legislation due to an EU Temporary Protection Directive that was activated in response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine. 

The Department of Justice also told The Journal that they don’t ”use or advocate the term illegal immigrant”.

Blighe stood in both local and European elections, but failed to take a seat. He was eliminated in the sixth count in the Fermoy LEA, and in the 16th count for the Ireland South European election.

Blighe was not the only far-right anti-immigrant candidate to use such terms.

Philip Dwyer, who regularly uploads videos from protests against asylum seeker accommodation around the country, also posted about visiting a “people trafficking centres” throughout May.

He was referring to proposed accommodation for asylum seekers, as opposed to “people trafficking” which has a specific legal meaning.

The Department of Foreign Affairs describes people trafficking as a form of slavery and Irish law gives examples of this, such as forced labour and coerced prostitution.

The term is often confused with “people smuggling”, though both mean very different things. 

There is another, much more common term that closely matches the meaning of people trafficking: slavery.

A video that was spread on Irish social media and viewed tens of thousands of times late last year claims that, because immigrants to Ireland are transported into the country, and people who provide accomodation for them make money, it fits the definition of human trafficking.

It does not.

While refugees are particularly at risk of being trafficked — due to social isolation, a lack of community support networks, resources, and livelihood opportunities — citizens and other residents can be victims too.

And while legislation does mention the transportation of victims, this is not necessary for the crime of people trafficking to occur.

The misuse of these terms is likely to give people a false impression of the asylum system in Ireland, challenges posed by the migration crisis, and the effectiveness of proposed solutions.

The term “illegals” is widely discouraged, including by the UN Refugee Agency who say: “The term ‘illegal’ has escaped its legal, and even grammatical, moorings and now stands alone as a noun.

“It does not conjure British backpackers overstaying on Australia’s Gold Coast, or Kiwis working in London’s pubs. It conjures sweatshops and sexshops, poverty, and race. The face of the imaginary illegal is poor and brown and destitute,” the agency adds.

Human Rights Watch describes the use such terms as being “dehumanising and degrading” and likely to “fuel the view that such people have limited or no rights”.

It also notes that these terms imply that asylum seekers, many of whom will be recognised as refugees fleeing from war or prosecution, are either “inherently criminal” or “irrevocably tainted”.

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