The UK media needs to stop referring to refugees as "illegal immigrants"

Negative news coverage fuels social tensions and turns refugees into scapegoats.

New Statesman
Residentsfrom Red Road Flats in Glasgow march in support of asylum seekers. Photo:Getty.

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. This negative coverage often forces asylum seekers to join a long list of convenient scapegoats including the unemployed, those claiming benefits and those registered as disabled, and can be very damaging indeed.

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. 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 three of the 34 articles discussing asylum seekers.

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 7 years.It was also Refugee Week that month. Yet in the 2011 press coverage, the difficulties faced by asylum seekers were mentioned in twelve articles out of the 69 articles on the subject. In the 2011 sample, five of these references were in The Guardian, and two in The Telegraph. The benefits of immigration in general were mentioned in only three articles discussing asylum, and these appeared in The Daily Mail and in The Times. Asylum seekers’ voices were marginal in comparison to those 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. 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) and The Times (18).

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.

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.’ But these ‘illegal immigrants’ are then described as people ‘fleeing the troubles in North Africa and the Middle East’. 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 people are ‘refugees’ is 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.’ But although the article acknowledges that the people in question are fleeing conflict,  the article twice uses the term ‘illegal immigrants’ and also refers to these refugees simply as ‘immigrants’.

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 five times in the 34 articles that people who enter the country without documentation are ‘illegal immigrants’.

The Daily Mail discusses a report ‘Welcome to the Asylum’ from 2001, and writes: ‘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.’ This vivid example demonstrates how the method of entry is often used to justify an assumption and belief that the 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, had done nothing wrong and was 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: “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.”

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 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. In 2011, we noticed a tendency for the press to portray asylum seekers as a potential threat. Crimes or other harm inflicted by asylum seekers were discussed in 14 articles, building the sense of ‘public threat.’ The theme of ‘threat’ was further developed through the debate over the deportation of criminals or terrorists subjects, mentioned in 16 articles in our 2011 sample.

Hostile coverage has a great impact on asylum seekers in the UK, with a number of refugees telling us it led to verbal abuse. It also legitimises negative public responses, with journalists contributing to a climate of panic and demanding action from policy makers. Now, more than ever, care needs to be taken to ensure that refugees aren’t caught up in a debate over immigration, or presented in ways that can be exploited by populist groups in the wake of the Woolwich attack.

Emma Briant is a lecturer in journalism studies at the University of Sheffield. Read more in Emma Briant's new book Bad News for Refugees co-authored with Greg Philo and Pauline Donald, published by Pluto Press.