The United Nations defines a refugee as someone who has been forced to flee his or her country because of persecution, war or violence.
An asylum seeker is defined as someone who has applied for protection as a refugee and is waiting for the decision.
By definition then refugees and asylum seekers are in desperate situations and in need of the support of their host country. However, if you pop the words ‘refugee’ and ‘asylum seeker’ in a media search engine the rhetoric you get is very different.
For both my undergraduate and masters’ dissertations I looked specifically at this – focusing on the British media’s representation of refugees and asylum seekers and how the general public respond to these. I found that the mainstream media often have an anti-immigrant stance that aims to influence their readers or viewers to think a certain way about refugees and asylum seekers.
Myth: Huge numbers of refugees and asylum seekers enter Britain
One of the biggest myths that the British media depicts is that the country is struggling to cope with the huge numbers of refugees and asylum seekers coming to settle here.
British newspapers use “excessive quantity attributions like: enormous rise, huge numbers, uncontrolled [number], and unlimited numbers.”1
Alongside this, journalists use pejorative language to suggest that the number of refugees and asylum seekers entering Britain could lead to a natural disaster: “‘an iceberg’, ‘swamped’, ‘soaring’, ‘waves’, ‘masses’ and ‘flooding in’” 2
Truth: Actually the number of refugees and asylum seekers entering Britain is incredibly small!
In reality, only a very small percentage of refugees enter Britain or Europe for that matter. As the World Economic Forum (2017) states “developing countries host 84% of the world’s refugees.” Looking specifically at European countries, in 2018 the United Kingdom accounted for only 6% of all first-time asylum seeker applications in the EU Member States compared to 28% for Germany and 19% for France.3
So, why is this myth damaging?
Britain could do so much more to help refugees and asylum seekers who are fleeing conflict around the world. However, we already feel as though we are already doing too much because of the myths that the media has projected!
So instead of helping those most in need, refugees and asylum seekers are subjected to both physical and verbal abuse on a daily basis.
Kundnani’s (2001: p46) research found that in 1996 approximately 750 asylum seekers were settled in Dover, making up “0.4 per cent of the local population.” However, the local press over-exaggerated numbers and “referred to thousands of asylum seekers flooding the area, and by sheer dint of numbers, running down the welfare state.” Kundnani found that this led to acts of violence against asylum seekers by local residents who were misinformed by the media.
This is not an isolated case. In June 2018, a refugee family were attacked by a local man in Bolton 4 and in October that year, a video of a Syrian refugee boy being violently attacked at a school in Huddersfield went viral 5 Anti-immigrant sentiments no doubt contributed to these violent attacks on refugees.
What is my advice?
Stop looking to the mainstream media for your information and instead go out and get involved with the refugee community!
There are plenty of refugee and asylum seeker charities across the UK doing amazing work with some of the most vulnerable individuals in our country. Volunteer and support them and hear the refugees’ true stories along the way.
Refugee Action provides practical support and guidance for refugees and asylum seekers settling in the UK.
Refugee Council is the only national organisation providing support to refugee children and young people who arrive in the UK alone.
Refugee Support Network exists to enable refugee and asylum seeking children and young people to build more hopeful futures through education.
The British Red Cross provides refugee services in 58 towns and cities across the country.
My fellow Charityworks trainee Lauren has also published a handy guide to helping specific refugee campaigns, from improving the UK immigration system to allowing refugees and asylum seekers to seek free healthcare.
This isn’t me saying that all media is bad! There are some great alternative media outlets that report true refugee, asylum seeker and migrant stories. Why not give them a read?
By Hannah Ryan, CW18 Trainee at Paradigm Housing Group
Kundnani, A. (2001). In a foreign land: the new popular racism. Race and class. 43 (2), p41-60
World Economic Forum. (2017). 84% of refugees live in developing countries. Available: https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2017/06/eighty-four-percent-of-refugees-live-in-developing-countries/ Last accessed 17th June 2019