We need to change the very language we use to talk about immigrants

An immigrant can no more be "illegal" than a teacher or a politician. To pretend otherwise dehumanises them, writes Chitra Nagarajan.

Immigration has rarely been far from newspaper pages in recent times.  A report, released last week by the Migration Observatory at the University of Oxford, looked at the 43 million words that made up the content dealing with migrants and migration in all 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 word. Water based metaphors such as "flood",  "influx" and "wave" were frequently used to describe "immigrants" and "migrants".  

These results fit our current political discourse. We are living in times of severe hostility towards immigrants. The language used shows just how normalised these views have become. I grew up hearing "go home Paki" and seeing those signs everywhere in Oldham in the early 90s when I first arrived in England. I never would have thought it would be the government, not far right racist groups, who would be telling people to "go home" twenty years later.  

The language used by newspapers reflects but also shapes these narratives. Standard headline in the past few weeks have been The Independent’s “Home Office may have broken the law in 'racist' hunt for illegal immigrants – and may have questioned domestic violence victims”, The Mirror’s “Exposed: Illegal immigrants in police and NHS jobs...and there was even one in the treasury” and The Daily Mail’s “How Russia deals with illegal immigrants”. It is telling that The Independent puts racist within brackets to describe government action disproportionately targeting black people but not the word illegal to describe people.

That illegal is most commonly used to describe immigrants is hardly surprising, but it is deeply problematic. Using "illegal immigrant" frames the debate from the perspective of the politicians – and those who are the most virulently anti-immigration at that – rather than the viewpoint of the populace, let alone the ones of immigrant backgrounds. As with the use of "bogus" before "asylum seeker", the qualifier ends up dominating the noun so that the idea of "illegal" and "immigrant" become synonymous. From the news coverage alone, we would never know that the numbers of immigrants with legal status are far greater than those without it. 

It also places the migrant populations of the UK outside the debate. Most of the public discourse on migration lacks the voices of those of immigrant backgrounds. It is not surprising that coverage of immigration is largely profoundly negative in tone as a result, dominated by the thought of hordes of "illegal immigrants" amassing at the shores. If anything positive is written, it is usually from the standpoint of the positive contributions migration makes to British society, seen as starting from a monocultural base, rather than looking at the experiences of immigrants themselves or acknowledging the long history of immigration to these islands. 

In the USA, where intense debate about immigration is also a recurring theme in politics, this is slowly changing. As a result of mobilisation and organising, many news organisations have changed 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 change the language used, and reflect that it is the act that may be illegal, not the person. The phrase "illegal immigrant" has come to be normalised, used as a matter of course without anyone thinking about what it implies. I cannot think of the word being used to describe a whole category of people in any other instance. When was the last time you heard, talked or wrote about "illegal politicians" or "illegal teachers" when referring to politicians who take bribes or teachers who have sex with their students? They are called corrupt or sex offenders, words that describe the situation factually rather than criminalising a complete class of people. Here the facts are that some people have not been or are no longer authorised by the state to be in the country, not that they are "illegal".

That people talk about immigrants differently is an indication that our society does not believe immigrants have the right to exist. It is a symptom of the contempt towards immigrants that is filtering into everyday consciousness. It serves to decontextualise, takes away nuance and means that questions that seek out the truth of what is actually happening are not asked. The rhetoric of "illegal immigrant" becomes internalised rather than the realities of the lives of those without status in the country examined. Moreover, it means that news coverage, meant to be objective, takes a position on immigration, sometimes subconsciously in ways that journalists themselves did not intend to take.  Calling people "illegal" takes away their humanity and says much about a society at ease with doing so.

The "go home" van. Photograph: Gov.uk

Chitra Nagarajan has worked to promote and protect the human rights of women in China, the United Kingdom, the United States and west Africa. She is an active member of Go Feminist and Black Feminists, and tweets as @chitranagarajan.

CREDIT: GETTY
Show Hide image

Barb Jungr’s diary: Apart-hotels, scattered families and bringing the Liver Birds back to Liverpool

My Liver Birds reboot, set in the present day with new music and a new story, is coming to life at the Royal Court Theatre.

For the last three years I’ve been writing a musical. Based on Carla Lane and Myra Taylor’s Liver Birds characters Beryl and Sandra, but set in the present day with new music and a new story, it is coming to life at the Royal Court Theatre – in Liverpool, appropriately. Amazingly, the sun shines as the train ambles into Lime Street, where Ken Dodd’s statue has recently been customised with a feather duster tickling stick and some garlands of orange and lime green. Outside the station, composer Mike Lindup and I buy a Big Issue. We have a scene opening Act Two with a Big Issue seller and we are superstitious. We check into our “apart-hotel”. Apart-hotel is a new word and means a hotel room with a kitchen area you will never, ever use.

At the theatre everyone hugs as though their lives depend on it; we are all aware we are heading into a battle the outcome of which is unknown. There will be no more hugging after this point till opening night as stress levels increase day by day. I buy chocolate on the way back as there’s a fridge in my apart-hotel and I ought to use it for something.

Ships in the night

There’s no point in being in Liverpool without running by the river, so I leap up (in geriatric fashion) and head out into the rain. You’d think, since I grew up in the north-west and cannot ever remember experiencing any period of consecutive sunny days here, that I’d have brought a waterproof jacket with me. I didn’t. It springs from optimism. Misplaced in this case, as it happens. I return soaking but with a coconut latte. Every cloud.

We have been in the theatre for seven hours. Everything has been delayed. The cast are amusing themselves by singing old television themes. They have just made short shrift of Bonanza and have moved on to The Magic Roundabout. We may all be going very slightly mad.

As hours dwindle away with nothing being achieved, Mike and I pop to the theatre next door to enjoy someone else’s musical. In this case, Sting’s. It’s wonderfully palate-cleansing and I finally manage to go to sleep with different ear worms about ships and men, rather than our own, about Liverpool and women.

Wood for the trees

This morning “tech” begins (during which every single move of the cast and set, plus lighting, costume, prop and sound cues must be decided and logged on a computer). Problems loom around every piece of scenery. Our smiles and patience wear thin.

By the end of the 12-hour session we know we have the most patient, professional cast in the known cosmos. I, on the other hand, am a lost cause. I fret and eat, nervously, doubting every decision, every line, every lyric. Wondering how easy it would be to start over, in forestry perhaps? There is a drug deal going on across the road in the street outside the hotel. My apart-hotel kitchen remains as new.

First preview

I slept like a log. (All those years of working with Julian Clary make it impossible not to add, “I woke up in the fireplace”.) At the crack of dawn we’re cutting scenes in the Royal Court café like hairdressers on coke. Today is ladies’ day at Aintree, which feels apropos; tonight we open Liver Birds Flying Home, here.

The spirit of Carla Lane, who died in 2016, always dances around our consciousness when we are writing. She was very good to us when we began this project, and she was incredibly important to my teenage self, gazing out for role models across the cobblestones.

I grew up in Rochdale, a first-generation Brit. My parents had come here after the war, and what family we had was scattered to the four winds, some lost for ever and some found much later on, after the Velvet Revolution. I had a coterie of non-related “aunties” who felt sorry for us. Ladies with blue rinses, wearing mothball-smelling fur coats in cold houses with Our Lady of Fátima statues lit by votive candles in every conceivable alcove. To this day, the smell of incense brings it all back. Yet the northern matriarchy is a tough breed and I’m happy to carry some of that legacy with pride.

Seeing the theatre fill with people is terrifying and exciting in equal measure. We’ve had to accept that the finale isn’t in tonight’s show because of lack of technical time. I’m far from thrilled. The show, however, has a life of its own and the actors surf every change with aplomb. The audience cheers, even without the finale. Nonetheless, I slouch home in despair. Is it too late to change my name?

Matinee day

The fire alarm is going off. I know that because I’m awake and it’s 4am. As I stand in reception among the pyjama-clad flotsam and jetsam of the apart-hotel, I suspect I’m not the only one thinking: if only they’d had alarms this annoyingly loud in Grenfell. I don’t go back to sleep. I rewrite the last scene and discuss remaining changes for the morning production meeting with my co-writer, George.

The Saturday afternoon performance (which now includes the finale) receives a standing ovation in the circle. The ratio of women to men in the audience is roughly five to one. In the evening performance it is 50/50, so I’m curious to see how Beryl and Sandra’s story plays to the chaps who’ve been dragged out on a Saturday night with their wives. In the pub after the show a man tells Lesley, the actress playing present-day Beryl, how moved he had been by what he’d seen and heard.

A few years ago I stood behind Miriam Margolyes as we were about to go on stage at the Royal Festival Hall in a Christmas show. She turned to me, saying, “Why do we do this to ourselves?” We agreed: “Because we can’t do anything else!” I suspect forestry is out of the question at this juncture. 

“Liver Birds Flying Home” is at the Royal Court, Liverpool, until 12 May.

Barb Jungr is an English singer, songwriter, composer and writer.

This article first appeared in the 18 April 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Enoch Powell’s revenge