Asylum: perception and reality

Posted by Dr John Jewell

From the front cover of the Daily Express – 6th June 2013

The issues addressed by Tanya Gold in her Guardian column on Monday 12th of August Europe’s treatment of asylum seekers is driven by fear of the unfortunate are depressingly familiar.

Gold writes of the decisions made by some Swiss towns to ban asylum seekers from public spaces.  The BBC earlier this month quoted Roman Staub, mayor of the town of Menzingen who stated asylum seekers should be banned from “sensitive areas” such as the vicinity of a school. He said, “this is certainly a very difficult area, because here asylum-seekers could meet our schoolchildren – young girls or young boys,’.

The not so subtle subtext here is easy to decipher. Asylum seekers become, in effect, the bogeymen of folk tales. They are potentially child molesters.  The young must be protected from their influences and desires. 

Unfortunately, it is this image of the asylum seeker – as outsider, invader and criminal – that has been a staple feature of the tabloid representation of asylum over the last 15 years or so. For the right-wing tabloid press in Britain (including The Sun, Daily Star, Daily Express and Daily Mail) the greatest threat to the social fabric of Britain is the continual influx into the country of asylum seekers and illegal immigrants. Barely a week passes without reports of asylum seekers – regularly portrayed as opportunistic, disease ridden money grabbers – casually entering Britain. They are, we are told, seduced by the lure of state offered riches, superior housing and a life of luxury. Once in this country, according to the myths spread by these newspapers, they claim all the benefits they can, refuse to work and routinely indulge in crime sprees. There is no attempt to set context and no attempt is made to explain the difference between terms such as ‘asylum seeker’, ‘refugee’ or ‘immigrant’.

The right-wing press consistently argues that Britain is too full and cannot afford the cost of hosting so many asylum seekers applying for refugee status. Statistics and numbers are routinely produced while reports use emotive and politically loaded terms like ‘flooding’ and ‘swamped’ with monotonous regularity.

It is clear that a great deal of media attention focuses on numbers. There are numerous reports about how many people are arriving in the UK, at what rate and, crucially, at what cost to the taxpayer. Given the level of animosity and the sheer amount of coverage, it is fair to say that (for sections of the British press) asylum seekers and refugees have become, over the past fifteen years or so, the latest in a long line of what Stanley Cohen defined as ‘folk devils’. According to Cohen, certain minority groups become the subjects of moral panics. These are people who are perceived to exist apart from the core values of consensual society and are therefore a risk to the continued existence of accepted norms. The media, and in particular the press, have been instrumental in the demonisation of refugees, whipping up hysteria whilst calling for tighter immigration controls.

As far back as 2001 Ceri Mollard wrote that although the press cannot be held responsible for public opinion:

The dissemination of myths about asylum seekers and the openly hostile statements printed in some sections of the press have helped to justify the serious undermining of the human rights of a group of extremely vulnerable people. A poll carried out by MORI* in the latter half of the year indicates that many Britons have been influenced by negative press coverage on asylum seekers – for example, 80 per cent of adults polled believed that refugees came to Britain because they believed it to be a ‘soft touch’.

It is a misconception that it is only the right-wing press that resorts to stereotyping and stock imagery. It can be reasonably stated that the repetition of particular images on television news and current affairs programmes has propagated a set of definitive images that illustrate and inform the immigration and asylum debate in the UK.

A 2003 Cardiff University study of broadcast news carried out with Article 19, the global campaign for free expression, found that:

the most common themes treated in the television news coverage are: the growing and uncontrolled numbers of asylum seekers/refugees seeking entry to Britain….you have coverage in which the prevailing emphasis both visually and verbally is on the communication of risk and fear: and on one very narrow aspect of the whole context in which asylum seeking occurs. 

One of the stereotypes that clearly emerges is of unwanted and threatening outsiders in British communities. Although the relationship between public opinion and media coverage is a complex one, what is evident from various studies of coverage of asylum seekers and refugees is the fact that the population of Britain is presented, via its right-wing press and television service, with coverage that is one dimensional, repetitive and alarmist. Philo and Beattie have suggested that what is prioritised in terms of British news coverage is immigration as a threat and how best Britain can cope with that ‘threat’.

When Lord Justice Leveson submitted his report into the ethics and practices of the press in November 2012, he stated that:

When assessed as a whole, the evidence of discriminatory, sensational or unbalanced reporting in relation to ethnic minorities, immigrants and/or asylum seekers, is concerning. The press can have significant influence over community relations and the way in which parts of society perceive other parts. While newspapers are entitled to express strong views on minority issues, immigration and asylum, it is important that stories on those issues are accurate, and are not calculated to exacerbate community divisions or increase resentment. Although the majority of the press appear to discharge this responsibility with care, there are enough examples of careless or reckless reporting to conclude that discriminatory, sensational or unbalanced reporting in relation to ethnic minorities, immigrants and/or asylum seekers is a feature of journalistic practice in parts of the press, rather than an aberration.

The situation in 2013 is little better. As I write, I take a trip to the Daily Mail website and find that in July the paper ran stories under these headlines – Park Lane gipsies sent packing: Police swoop on camp in central London and offer Roma free flights home (but only if they fancy it) and Defunct UK Border Agency paid out £13m in a year for legal costs in immigration cases it lost and True toll of mass migration on UK life: Half of Britons suffer under strain placed on schools, police, NHS and housing. On August 9th the Daily Express told us: EU flooded with 1,000 asylum seeker applications EVERY day. On the 22nd July, the same paper reported: Fury at £32m bill to care for failed asylum seekers. DELAYS in getting rid of failed ­asylum seekers are costing the hard-pressed British taxpayers ­millions of pounds a year.

This sort of reportage matters. It matters a great deal because, obvious though it may be, research tells us that the media is the most important and powerful force that helps shape public opinion about ‘controversial’ issues such as immigration and asylum. On July 9th Ally Fogg wrote in the Independent of a survey by the Royal Statistical Society which evidenced the vast disparity between what the British public believes to be the state of the nation, and the actual reality reflected by sober official statistics. Fogg also highlighted, ‘the average member of the public believes 24 per cent of the British population is Muslim. It is actually five per cent. Average estimates of the total immigrant population are two to three times higher than reality.

I don’t think anyone could deny that there are problems with the UK government’s policies toward immigration and asylum. What we need to do debate these issues calmly and rationally without resorting to hysteria and scare mongering. What if the Mail, Express and the Sun told us that almost all asylum seekers are not allowed to work and are therefore forced rely on state support which can be as little as £5 a day?

What if they told us, on their front pages, that crime levels in neighbourhoods that have experienced mass immigration from eastern Europe over the past 10 years has fallen significantly?

And what if they actually appealed to our basic humanity? What if they concentrated on the underlying reasons for asylum seeking – the suffering and misery endured by people forced to flee their home countries? Well, that certainly would be news. News beyond the continual repetition of a few insidious, odious key themes.