Bringing together researchers, practitioners and policy makers working with migrants, refugees and asylum seekers in Scotland
The UN estimates that at least 232 million people currently live outside their country of origin, many having moved for a variety of reasons. In and amongst the reasons, searching for protection and searching for opportunity are often hard to separate. The UN calls for a human rights approach to migration which places the migrant at the centre of migration policies and management, paying particular attention to the situation of marginalised and disadvantaged groups of migrants. Women migrants are one marginalised and disadvantaged group in society. This largely by virtue of being socially visible as women and also by their being migrants. They stand out in their community and are therefore targets of different and discriminatory treatment.
How they are perceived in society has an impact on the treatment they receive. One key contributing factor to public perception is how they are represented in the media. Media impact on public opinion, political agendas, policy and practice cannot be overemphasised. Apart from coming from a migrant background, I spent a few months in the past year researching media impact on these areas. The UK immigration system is not always sympathetic to migrants. Bearing in mind that reasons for migration may be a mixture, women migrants have to grapple with a system which doubts their credibility and expects the woman to prove otherwise. The criminal system on the other hand operates from the presumption of innocent until proven guilty. Not so for the migrating woman. She is disbelieved and often re-traumatised as she has to retell horrifying experiences she might have fled from. She may be criminalised for seeking protection and treated as such. She then needs to prove her credibility from a starting point of incredibility. Media opinion has mostly adopted this stance of disbelief. The search for safety becomes another ordeal from a system she had trusted to protect her.
Poor and unbalanced media representation has further demonised the woman who innocently presents herself in this country in search of safety. The media, politicians and policy makers alike have not spared this woman. She has been hammered down by them, left, right and centre. Sadly, they have formed a vicious cycle, a hamster cage in which her image is trapped. A politician may portray her, for example, as a scrounger. This image will be carried by the media which then influences public opinion. Any public outcry against the migrant, based on the said media opinion, results in swaying the politician in favour of the public (the voting population). What does the politician do? Change their rhetoric, influence legislation, policy and practice to reflect views which favour the voter at the peril of the migrant. The cycle is endless as these aspects impact each other in turn. It is the migrant woman who has to bear the brunt of this unfavourable situation.
Breaking this cycle to release the migrant woman from this cage calls for balancing media reporting to reflect the reality. What if the media reported the actual circumstances of this woman such as the challenges she faces: poor housing, poverty, isolation, hate-incited violence, gender-specific violence in and out of the home, poor physical and mental health, discrimination at different levels, lack of access to services and/or awareness of them, immigration issues, unemployment, lack of education and opportunity? What if the media went on further to recognise that positive contribution that this woman has or potentially has on the society? Some women have gone on to be skilled professionals, others brought along skills, which have benefitted this country. Some have volunteered their skills, time and resources towards good causes. Some of them take up jobs which the local population would rather not do. They contribute to the tax purse and at times they may not even have recourse to any public funds. Not much of this, however, is reported to the public.
A few months ago I had the opportunity to attend the Refugee Festival Media Awards, which gave me an insight into balanced media representation. I came across the kind of media which not only sympathised with refugees but also had a positive impact on the attitudes of the receiving (host) community. On the Isle of Bute, such reporting had an impact on preparing the local population to welcome Syrian refugees in a warm and friendly manner. This built up some hope and faith in me, that good media reporting can, and does exist.
The media is a great tool which can be harnessed for raising awareness and educating the masses. Handled well, this can mean favourable results. At the moment, this is not the case. We need to lobby the media to be more objective in their reporting on women and migration. Negative reporting can be challenged, however deeply ingrained it has been in tradition. It might take a while but the battle can be won eventually. If the media can Write to End Violence Against Women, our hope is that, one day, she will be released from this cycle, out of the cage, into a free world.
A version of this article was first published by Common Space on the 31st August 2016.