Challenging media representation of refugees and migrants

By Harry Busz and Gabriella Mansell

The stigmatisation of migrants, asylum seekers and refugees in the media is not hard to come by. In the past few years’ newspaper headlines have been dominated with stories surrounding the EU migrant crisis, Syrian refugees and Mexican immigration into the US to name just a few. At a glance these may appear to be and often are, important news stories which display reasonable arguments surrounding these issues, yet many media outlets use their influence to portray those in crisis as dangerous to our society. Sensationalist stories that often attack individual’s religions and intent plague many of the country’s biggest selling newspapers, leading to action from the IPSO, which has moved to try and prevent inaccurate reporting. Headlines from columnists such as Katie Hopkins claiming Britain is providing ‘an all-inclusive resort service’ for asylum seekers and thus must be marked with wristbands have only heightened the problem in the mainstream media.

The line between genuine concerns surrounding the increasing levels of immigration and how our country can implement policies to cope with this are continually becoming blurred with an influx of islamopobic, extreme nationalism. The spike in racially fuelled incidents following the EU referendum has coincided with mass media outlets (many of whom backed the Leave campaign) releasing a torrent of ‘migrant splashes’. Due to the prominence of right wing, anti-immigrant parties such as UKIP a negative rhetoric has been far more prevalent in the UK as opposed to countries such as Spain or Germany. Little thought is offered to the very real negative effects that people in need often suffer as a consequence of widespread fear of ‘others’.

Right wing British press outlets have been found to be the most aggressive in Europe, often applying the wrong terminology to refugees attempting to distort the line between economic migrants and people in need. As well as being morally insensitive to many of the most deprived people in the world this only serves to delegitimize many of the rights valid concerns surrounding reducing immigration. Recent research undertaken at Cardiff University has shown that not only are population flows one of the most commonly discussed issues in print media but also that papers such as the Daily Mail cite economic pull factors as the most common reason for refugees to move. This almost always is simply not true. Arguments for reducing EU migration should not come at the expense of tricking public opinion into loathing refugees.

Liz Gerard, a former Times Journalist has her own blog called ‘Subscribe’ which reviews ‘the very best and worst of British Journalism’. Over the past couple of years she has been undertaking her own research into the frequency of ‘migrant splashes’ within the UK media, in particular Tabloid newspapers. She regularly comments on the alarming number of inflammatory articles which she believes negatively exaggerate the impacts of the resettlement of refugees and asylum seekers within the UK. She noted that is was evident throughout her research that there were far more anti-immigration splashes in May and June 2016 during the run up to the European Referendum in contrast to that of April and July. Evidently, the papers are using negative portrayals of refugees as a way to further their own political agendas, arguably to the detriment of these vulnerable communities.

The stigmatization surrounding asylum seekers and refugee populations in the UK has often led to discrimination, mental health problems as well as damaging our collective sense of community. Furthermore the independent employability forum has noted that potential employers fear stigma attached to employing refugees based in negative publicity attached to Tabloid headlines. Public impressions are often that asylum seekers steal local jobs, although this is in fact a rare occurrence and becoming employed acts as a way foreign communities can integrate into their new society and rebuild their lives.

It is important in these times that the media becomes transparent both in the terminology and effects attached to varying forms of immigration into the UK. Educating our population to the needs and benefits of accepting some of the most vulnerable people on the planet must be at the forefront of our national conversation, especially at this time of increasing fear, extreme nationalism and crisis. As well as the media, it is crucial that we engage in discussion and make ourselves question what is printed in the headlines before taking it at face value.