Emma Briant, co-author of Bad News for Refugees (Pluto, 2013), has written a short piece for Migrant Voice this week. We’ve reproduced it below. You can also visit the article in its original context, here. The book is available to buy now for £15 including free UK P&P.
Earlier this month George Osborne revealed plans for seven more years of an Austerity Britain in which the poorest communities will be put under greater pressure, increasing the struggle over scarce resources in coming years. Meanwhile the UN has predicted that there will be 3.2M Syrian refugees by the end of 2013, 5.2M by the end of 2014, and those displaced cannot all be accommodated in neighbouring countries (The Independent, 7th October 2013). Britain, as part of the EU, must agree to share the responsibility to relieve humanitarian need, and in doing so find the best way to take in migrants so that they can enrich the country and communities they enter. This rests on the accurate and responsible reporting of refugee and wider migration issues, coverage that calls for well-targeted support as new migrants or refugees move into communities that are already under pressure.
This new book by Glasgow Media Group examines press and television coverage of asylum thematically from two periods in 2006 and 2011; in both samples the difficulties faced by asylum seekers were rarely mentioned. By 2011, numbers of asylum applications had been stable, sustained at a level of 25,932 or below, for 7 years. Yet, 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 ‘hand-out’, ‘scrounger’ and ‘benefit tourist’. This is perhaps unsurprising given the spending cuts being pushed through during the period. But while negative populist coverage might boost sales, it also adds asylum seekers to a long list of scapegoats including the unemployed and those registered as disabled. This can be very damaging indeed. Even in reporting the recent Lampedusa tragedy, press coverage often used the term ‘illegal immigrants’. Some of those on the ship came from Syria and it is unknown how many were seeking asylum. Since refugees may flee suddenly and may not have any of their papers, they often cannot enter the country through the usual means, but cannot claim asylum until they arrive. The Refugee Convention, which Britain has signed up to, recognises this and states that countries must not penalise them.
As with the current Lampedusa 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, and commonly in the national press. In 2011, the term was used less on TV, but still appeared a concerning amount in the press. Across all 69 articles in the 2011 sample 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. Supportive representations of asylum seekers during both periods were rare and often situated in the otherwise hostile coverage. One journalist we interviewed revealed how terms are used to create scapegoats and demonise asylum seekers and other migrants into a single negative category of people: “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, all social ills can be traced back to immigrants and asylum seekers flooding into this country.” The book reveals how benefits of immigration were mentioned very rarely, though Chancellor George Osborne’s Office for Budget Responsibility watchdog has advised that spending cuts to public services and a fall in economic growth would result if immigration were cut to the levels the Conservatives plan by 2015 (Chu & Grice, 13th July 2012). Refugee Organisations and asylum seekers’ voices were marginal in comparison to those of politicians.
The book also examines the great impact this hostile coverage had on asylum seekers in the UK, and their communities including verbal abuse and heightened tensions. Coverage such as this legitimises negative public responses, with journalists contributing to a climate of panic and demanding action from policy makers, whilst leaving a gulf of understanding. In a climate where government cuts are heightening anxiety over scarce resources, there is a growing global humanitarian need that must be acted upon, and care must be taken to ensure that refugees aren’t portrayed in ways that might be exploited by anti-immigration populism.