Bringing together researchers, practitioners and policy makers working with migrants, refugees and asylum seekers in Scotland
In a society where inequalities are increasing the struggle over scarce resources, the arrival of new groups of poor economic migrants or destitute refugees can put increased pressure on the poorest communities. One way media coverage could respond to this might be to focus on the struggle faced by new arrivals and pressure policymakers to target appropriate resources to meet their needs and reduce tensions in local areas. But coverage can also exploit the potential tensions created by these movements for a boost in sales. Some political groups effectively do the same thing to generate popular support for populist and nationalist policies. This distracts debate away from the impact other factors such as the economic crisis have and inhibit debate over alternative responses to it. Ultimately, through this kind of coverage, asylum seekers join a long list of convenient scapegoats including the unemployed, those claiming benefits and those registered as disabled (See for instance, our report ‘Bad News for Disabled People‘.
In the Glasgow University Media Unit we recently conducted a comparative study of how the media covered asylum in the press and television news in 2006 and 2011 and our book looks at themes such as these. We focussed on the week in May 2006 after Charles Clark’s resignation, when John Reid took over as Home Secretary and announced that a backlog of 450,000 asylum cases would be cleared by 2011. In 2006, sympathetic discussion of the problems facing asylum seekers was usually a minor theme in the press, and occurred in only 3 of the 34 articles discussing asylum seekers (solely or alongside economic migration). We compared our 2006 coverage thematically with the month of June 2011, when the announcement was made that this backlog had been cleared. By 2011, numbers of asylum applications had been stable, sustained at a level of 25,932 or below, for a period of 7 years (2005-2011) (Blinder, 5th December 2011).
It was also Refugee Week that month. Yet in 2011 press coverage, difficulties they faced were mentioned in 12 articles out of the 69 which discussed asylum seekers (solely or alongside economic migration) in the 2011 sample, 5 of these references were in The Guardian, and 2 The Telegraph. The benefits of immigration in general were mentioned in only 3 articles discussing asylum (or asylum alongside economic migration) in the 2011 sample of 69, in The Daily Mail and in The Times. The Mail for instance allows that ‘Yes, immigration has brought some benefits to this country’ but this is qualifying a whole article attacking ‘a back door amnesty’ and detailing the Conservatives failure to ‘end Labour’s policy of open door immigration’ (The Daily Mail 2, 3rd June 2011). Asylum seekers’ voices were marginal in comparison with the accounts of politicians. Supportive representations of asylum seekers during both periods were rare and often situated in otherwise hostile coverage.
We found common usage of the term ‘illegal immigrant’ across all national UK TV News reports in the 2006 sample in which asylum seekers were discussed. Only the Scottish regional broadcasts avoided the term altogether (BBC1 Reporting Scotland, 16th May 2006 & BBC2 Newsnight Scotland, 18th May 2006). The term ‘illegal immigrant’ (or variations such as ‘illegals’) was also common in the press, appearing 90 times in 34 articles in which asylum seekers were discussed with the highest usage in The Mail (25), The Times (18). In 2011, though the confusion of terms had reduced in the TV News, in the Press it was still concerning. Across all 69 articles in the 2011 sample where asylum seekers were discussed the term ‘illegal immigrant’ (or variations such as ‘illegals’) appeared 48 times – 16 of these were found in The Express and 11 in The Sun. In a typical example in The Telegraph, we are told at the start of the article that: ‘David Cameron is to insist that illegal immigrants are deported to the European country where they first arrived.’ (The Telegraph 2, 23rd June 2011).
But these ‘illegal immigrants’ are then described as people ‘fleeing the troubles in North Africa and the Middle East’ (The Telegraph 2, 23rd June 2011). The story concerns Cameron’s rejection of EU proposals to stop countries deporting asylum seekers to the European country in which they first arrived, which places a disproportionate burden on countries like Greece. A statement that these are ‘refugees’ is actually made by Cecilia Malmstrom, the EU ‘immigration chief’ in the article which states that she, ‘has accused EU governments of allowing xenophobic sentiments in Europe to dictate immigration policy and failing to protect refugees from North Africa.’ (The Telegraph 2, 23rd June 2011). The article is clearly acknowledging that these people are from ‘Arab Spring’ countries and mentions asylum rules yet the people it discusses are referred to twice as ‘illegal immigrants’ and also frequently as ‘immigrants’ a term which obfuscates the fact that many will be fleeing conflict (The Telegraph 2, 23rd June 2011).
Since refugees may flee suddenly and may not have any of their papers they often cannot enter the country through the usual means. The Refugee Convention which Britain has signed up to recognises this and states that countries must not penalise those arriving in ways that would normally be illegal. Yet the assumption was made 5 times in the 34 articles, that people who enter the country without documentation, or covertly, are ‘illegal immigrants’. The Daily Mail discusses a report ‘Welcome to the Asylum’ from 2001, and states: ‘I watched one illegal immigrant cut his way through the canvas roof of a lorry. He stood on the tarmac, dazed but happy, and immediately claimed asylum. He did not mind being found; he knew he was in Britain for good.’ (The Daily Mail 3, 18th May 2006). This vivid example demonstrates how the method of entry is often used to justify an assumption and belief that man who is claiming asylum must be an ‘illegal immigrant’ even before his story has been heard. It is possible that he ‘did not mind being found’ because he had reached sanctuary, he had done nothing wrong and claiming asylum is his right.
One journalist we interviewed revealed how the terms are used interchangeably: ‘Certainly when it comes to the idea of illegal immigrants and asylum seekers, very often they are just interchangeable terms’. This journalist described how terms are used to create scapegoats and demonise asylum seekers and other migrants into a single negative category of people: ‘You know, there’s nothing better than a Muslim asylum seeker, in particular, that’s a sort of jackpot I suppose. You know, it is very much the cartoon baddy, the caricature, you know, all social ills can be traced back to immigrants and asylum seekers flooding into this country.’
Another journalist commented on how the language of asylum and refugees had changed and then become linked to issues such as the seeking of benefits: ‘The language itself, the difference between refugee and asylum seeker, you don’t hear the word refugee anymore, its asylum seeker all the time. It’s been re-classed as somebody looking for benefits.’ Perhaps unsurprisingly, given the spending cuts that were being pushed through during the period, in the 2011 press sample we found increases in the representation of asylum seekers as a ‘burden’ on the taxpayer, including 19 incidences of language such as ‘pay-out’, ‘hand-out’, ‘scrounger’, ‘workshy’ and ‘benefit tourist’ in those articles looking at asylum in 2011 (9 in Daily Mail, and 8 in The Express). This coverage, and the absence of explanation that asylum seekers are forced into dependence on the state and charity, was then reported to affect refugees’ future opportunities. One Refugee Worker told us that, ‘I am around 48 years old and now I don’t have last eleven years, when I go to a job and they ask what eleven years you done? I [was] an asylum seeker. No chance, in this current situation, no chance. No getting a job.’ (Refugee Worker/Sri Lankan Refugee).
In a climate where government cuts are heightening anxiety over scarce resources, it can’t be stressed enough that irresponsible coverage may be opportunistically exploited by anti-immigration groups. Potential threat was a strong press theme we identified in the 2011 asylum sample. Crimes or other harm inflicted by asylum seekers were discussed in 14 articles building the sense of ‘public threat’ (including 4 in The Express and 5 in The Mail). In The Express this gave an overall sense of ‘savagery’; it stresses the danger posed to the safety of British women by Asian and African ‘men coming to Britain from [who] often bring with them … antediluvian attitudes’ from (The Express 1, 3rd June 2011). The Express article argues the Coalition lacks the ‘willpower to protect communities from unwanted arrivals’ (The Express 1, 3rd June 2011). The same Express article appears to hint at a solution outside mainstream politics as it argues that, ‘none of the main parties is in tune with public opinion on immigration and ultimately all appear willing to grant hordes of desperate young men from poor countries the de facto right to evade our laws’ (Our emphasis – The Express 1, 3rd June 2011). The theme of ‘threat’ was further developed through the debate over deportation of criminals or terrorists subjects mentioned in 16 articles in our 2011 sample.
We found much of the media coverage we examined highlights and stimulates potential tensions and fears by stigmatising refugees and asylum seekers. Hostile coverage has a great impact on lived experiences of asylum in the UK and a number of refugees and refugee workers commented on the impacts of hostile coverage citing incidences of verbal abuse. This coverage impacts on the mental health and emotional well-being of people who come to the UK traumatised and seeking help. It legitimises negative public responses, while journalists, in a climate of panic to which they have contributed, then demand ‘action’ from politicians, who then press government agencies to be seen to respond. In turn, the combination of media attacks and punitive government policy fuels the stigmatisation of refugees and their social isolation. Since 2011 of course, tensions have grown, fuelled by pressures on resources, and care needs to be taken to ensure refugees are not caught up in debate over ‘immigration’ or presented in a way that can be exploited by populist groups in the wake of the Woolwich attack.