Areport published this month by Oxford University’s Migration Observatory examined 43 million words written about migrants and migration in 20 of Britain’s main national daily and Sunday newspapers between 2010 and 2012. It found that the most common word used to describe “immigrants”, across broadsheet, mid-market and tabloid newspapers, was “illegal”. This far outnumbered any other adjective. Water-based metaphors such as “flood”, “influx” and “wave” were also frequently used to describe “immigrants” and “migrants”.
We are living in a time of rampant hostility towards immigrants. The language used to refer to them shows just how normalised these views have become. I grew up hearing, “Go home, Paki!” and seeing those words on signs everywhere in Oldham, Greater Manchester, in the early 1990s when I first arrived in England. I never thought that the government – and not just far-right, racist groups – would be telling people to “go home” 20 years later.
That “illegal” is the term most commonly used to describe immigrants is hardly surprising but it is deeply problematic. As with the use of “bogus” before “asylum-seeker”, the qualifier ends up dominating the noun, so that the ideas of “illegal” and “immigrant” become synonymous. From the news coverage alone, we would never know that immigrants with legal status are far greater in number than those without it.
Such language also places the migrant populations of the UK outside the debate. The voices of those from immigrant backgrounds are missing from most of the public discussion of migration. It is not surprising that coverage of the issue, as a result, is largely negative in tone, and is dominated by the notion that hordes of “illegal immigrants” are amassing at our shores. If anything positive is written, usually it is in terms of the positive contributions that migration makes to British society, rather than the experiences of immigrants.
In the United States, where loud debate about immigration is also a recurring theme in politics, this is slowly changing. Grass-roots pressure has made many news organisations change their style guides. The use of “illegal alien”, “illegal immigrant”, “illegal worker” or “illegal migrant”, which made up 82 per cent of the language used in 1996, dropped to a combined 57 per cent in 2013.
The way that all immigrants are seen and treated needs to change. One small step would be to transform the language that is used and to reflect that it is the act that may be illegal, not the person. When was the last time you heard, talked or wrote about “illegal politicians” or “illegal teachers” in relation to politicians who take bribes or teachers who have sex with their students? They are called “corrupt” or labelled “sex offenders” – words that describe the situation factually, rather than criminalising an entire class of people. Calling people “illegal” takes away their humanity, and it says a great deal about a society that is at ease with doing so.