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

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

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.

Residentsfrom Red Road Flats in Glasgow march in support of asylum seekers. Photo:Getty.
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Levi Bellfield, Milly Dowler and the story of men’s violence against girls

Before she was so inextricably connected to the phone hacking scandal, Milly Dowler was one of many women maimed and killed by a violent man.

The name Milly Dowler has meant phone hacking since July 2011. The month before that, Levi Bellfield (already imprisoned for the murders of Marsha McDonnell and Amelie Delagrange, and the attempted murder of Kate Sheedy) had been convicted of killing her, nine years after her death. But almost immediately, she became the centrepiece of Nick Davies’s investigations into Fleet Street “dark arts”, when it was revealed that News of the World journalists had accessed her voicemail during the search for her.

Suddenly her peers were not McDonnell, Delagrange and Sheedy, but Hugh Grant, Leslie Ash, Sadie Frost, Jude Law. People she could only have known from TV, now her neighbours in newsprint. Victims of a common crime. She had attained a kind of awful fame, and remains much better known than McDonnell, Delagrange and Sheedy.

There is a reason for that: with Milly Dowler, there was hope of finding her alive. Weeks of it, the awful hope of not knowing, the dull months of probability weighing down, until finally, in September 2002, the body. McDonnell, Delagrange and Sheedy were attacked in public places and found before they were missed. It is not such an interesting story as the schoolgirl who vanishes from a street in daylight. Once there were some women, who were killed and maimed by a man. The end.

Even now that Bellfield has confessed to kidnapping, raping and killing Milly, it seems that some people would like to tell any story other than the one about the man who kidnaps, rapes, kills and maims girls and women. There is speculation about what could have made him the kind of monster he is. There must be some cause, and maybe that cause is female.

Detective Chief Inspector Colin Sutton (who worked on the McDonnell and Delagrange murders) has said insinuatingly that Bellfield “dotes on his mother and her on him. It's a troubling relationship.” But it was not Bellfield’s mother who kidnapped, raped, killed and maimed girls and women, of course. He did that, on his own, although he is not the first male killer to be extended the courtesy of blaming his female relatives.

Coverage of the Yorkshire Ripper accused his wife Sonia of driving him to murder. “I think when Sutcliffe attacked his 20 victims, he was attacking his wife 20 times in his head,” said a detective quoted in the Mirror, as if the crimes were not Sutcliffe’s responsibility but Sonia’s for dodging the violence properly due to her. Lady Lucan has been successfully cast by Lucan’s friends as “a nightmare” in order to foster sympathy for him – even though he systematically tried to drive her mad before he tried to kill her, and did kill their children’s nanny, Sandra Rivett. Cherchez la femme. Cherchez la mom.

I know little about Bellfield’s relationship with his mother, but one of his exes spoke about him earlier this year. Jo Colling told how he had terrorised her while they were together, and stalked her after she left. “When I knew he was with another woman and not coming home it was a relief, but now I know what he was capable of, I feel guilty,” she said. “I did get an injunction against him, but it only made him even angrier.”

Colling fears that she could have prevented Bellfield’s murders by going to the police with her suspicions earlier; but since the police couldn’t even protect her, it is hard to see what difference this could have made, besides exposing herself further to Bellfield’s rage. Once there was a woman who was raped, beaten and stalked by the man she lived with. The end. This is a dull story too: Colling’s victimisation is only considered worth telling because the man who victimised her also killed Milly Dowler. Apparently the torture of a woman is only really notable when the man who does it has committed an even more newsworthy crime.

Throughout his engagements with the legal system, Bellfield seems to have contrived to inflate his own importance. Excruciatingly, he withheld his confession to murdering Milly until last year, leaving her family in an agony of unknowing – and then drew the process out even further by implicating an accomplice, who turned out to have nothing at all to do with the crime. He appears to have made the performance into another way to exercise control over women, insisting that he would only speak to female officers about what he did to Milly.

It is good that there are answers for the Dowler family; it is terrible that getting them let Bellfield play at one more round of coercions. And for the rest of us, what does this new information tell us that shouldn’t already be obvious? The story of men’s violence against girls and women is too routine to catch our attention most of the time. One woman killed by a man every 2.9 days in the UK. 88,106 sexual offences in a year.

Once there were some girls and women, who were tortured, stalked, kidnapped, raped, killed and maimed by a man. Dowler, McDonnell, Delagrange, Sheedy, Colling. More, if new investigations lead to new convictions, as police think likely. All those girls and women, all victims of Levi Bellfield, all victims of a common crime that will not end until we pull the pieces together, and realise that the torture, the stalking, the kidnaps, the rapes, the killing and the maiming – all of them are connected by the same vicious logic of gender. Then, and only then, will be able to tell a different story. Then we will have a beginning.

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.