Irregular, or illegal? Does it matter? Is it vilification?


Scott Morrison the new Minister for Immigration and Border Protection has directed his department to use the term “illegal maritime arrival”. Various commentators have decried this and referred to it as vilification.

As the Sydney Morning Herald reports – “When it came to office in 2007, Labor dropped the Howard government’s description of asylum seekers who arrived by boat as ‘‘illegal maritime arrivals’’, calling them ‘‘irregular maritime arrivals’’. It said this was done in recognition of the fact it is not illegal under Australian domestic law or international law to claim asylum.”

As far as I can determine Minister Morrison has required “irregular maritime arrival” and “asylum seeker” become “illegal maritime arrival”. Also for “client” to become “detainee” (onshore), or “transferee” (offshore).

So is the use of the term “illegal” without basis?

Well no, as the SMH points out, it is not illegal to seek asylum. Pointedly missing from the discussion is however, that it is illegal to arrive without documentation, and without visa (unless of course you can show by your passport that you are coming from a country which has visa free arrangements with Australia – like NZ).  I find it “cute” that various advocates play this line. It partners to “no orderly queue”, with the silent but significant emphasis on “orderly”

I would like to take some particular care here. It IS illegal to enter Australia visa-less (if you need a visa) and undocumented. Australia does have a queue for refugees taking a pre-determined (fixed, though periodically adjusted, annual) number of UN determined refugees each year (and leaving very many more waiting in camps and interim locations). The UN Convention on Refugees 1951 (with ammendments) Article 31 directs that signatory nations will not apply any penalties to illegally arriving persons, if they are seeking refuge (with some various and signicant qualificaitons).

The Australian Defence Forces have for a very long period used “illegal” within their terminology.  SIEV the ADF term for a boat filled with “irregular maritime arrivals” is “Suspected Illegal Entry Vehicle”.  A terminology the ADF have used with both ALP and Liberal Governments.

Even the United Nations uses the terminology “illegal” in the UN Refuge Convention.   Specifically Article 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.”

Is Scott Morrison without agenda in wanting to change terminology?  Of course not.  Is the language any more clunky, any less legitimate, any less agenda laden than the terminology it replaces.  I think its not.

More significantly I think the use of “illegal” is probably not the best fight to pick, and is a distraction

The Australian public are not brain dead, and are quite capable of seeing equally well past “illegal” as “irregular”.


2 thoughts on “Irregular, or illegal? Does it matter? Is it vilification?

  1. Hi Dave,
    The UN refers to the people as refugees. I think that’s a good collective term. The mode of entry may be ‘illegal’ but the people are not illegal. Scott Morrison seeks to demonise the people.
    I fear your assessment of the Australian public is a trifle optimistic.

  2. There are semantic games here. Does the adjective apply to the mode or to the person? Isn’t it dehumanising to refer to a person as an “arrival” anyway? I speak as a former Effective Full Time Student Unit of a university :-). Semantics are important but, you’re right, they are not the main game.

    You quote the UN “The UN Convention on Refugees 1951 (with ammendments) Article 31 directs that signatory nations will not apply any penalties to illegally arriving persons, if they are seeking refuge (with some various and signicant qualificaitons).”

    This is the problem. Asylum seekers arriving by boat are subject to detention of an arbitrary sort, forced relocation to a third country, and even if excepted are not given true refuge, but temporary residence with unique restrictions. Clearly those who seek asylum are being penalised for doing so, and even if they are accepted, under TPVs are subjected to a “penalised” residence.

    Morrison’s actions are unconscionable and contemptible.


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