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Bad News For Refugees - book review

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Posted on November 14th 2013

Review by Charlotte Peel, JCWI staff member.

The recent horrific tragedies off the coast of Lampedusa, where over 300 migrants drowned when their boats capsized in a couple of days, have renewed calls for a revision of European policy on migration. Among the dead were many asylum seekers fleeing conflict and persecution in Syria, Somalia and Eritrea, highlighting the plight of thousands of migrants willing to risk their lives in their desperation to reach Europe. These events follow Home Secretary Theresa May's latest policy to create a “hostile climate” for “illegal” immigrants in Britain, through an indiscriminate and wholesale attack on immigration and human rights. Bad News for Refugees, published by the Glasgow Media Group, therefore provides a timely and much needed analysis of the incredibly hostile media and political climate surrounding not only the portrayal of undocumented and irregular migrants, but also refugees and asylum seekers in the United Kingdom.


Greg Philo, Emma Briant and Pauline Donald place the government and media rhetoric of reducing net migration and tackling illegal immigration within the context of the global refugee crisis and asylum policy over the last 20 years. They explore the complex interaction between media accounts, government policy and public attitudes, which come together to create a climate of fear and persecution directed at one of society’s most vulnerable groups.

Despite the basic human right to seek protection from persecution through asylum, the authors reveal how we now live in a country where the word “asylum seeker” has become synonymous with crime, terrorism and abuse of the welfare system. Their research demonstrates the persistent and overwhelmingly hostile coverage of refugees and asylum seekers across the national media, which they implicate as a central factor in the perpetuation of these negative stereotypes. Telling interviews conducted with journalists reveal a vitriolic climate in the newsroom, where young journalists are actively encouraged and even forced to write negative articles on asylum issues. One journalist relays a story where an editor sends a young reporter to “go and monster an asylum seeker”. Another comments: “There’s nothing better than a Muslim asylum seeker, in particular, that’s a sort of jackpot I suppose. You know, it’s very much the cartoon baddy, the caricature, you know, all social ills can be traced back to immigrants and asylum seekers flooding this country”.


The authors focus on two key periods of reporting in 2006, shortly after the resignation of Charles Clarke as Home Secretary following the scandal of released foreign prisoners, and 2011, when the backlog of asylum cases were cleared in what the media described as an “amnesty”. Through their content analysis, the media coverage of asylum seekers and refugees is broken down into eight main themes, of which only three represent refugees and asylum seekers in a positive light and are consistently the most underreported. Widespread conflation of forced and economic migration, vilification and criminalisation of refugees and asylum seekers as well as a consistent lack of alternative perspectives or voices given to refugees, asylum seekers and those who represent them emerge as key trends in the style and content of reporting across television and print news.


A consistent theme throughout the content analysed is the conflation of asylum issues with economic migration, criminality, terrorism and economic problems. The authors reveal how failed asylum seekers are consistently referred to alongside undocumented or irregular migrants as “illegal” immigrants, despite the fact that around 30% of failed asylum seekers are granted leave to remain on appeal. Articles and news programmes also focussed intently on a small number of criminal cases committed by individual migrants, often failing to distinguish between asylum seekers and other foreign criminals, thereby making the threat appear larger than it actually is. This is despite a report by the National Assembly Against Racism (NAAR) which reveals that refugees and asylum seekers are less likely to commit major crimes than British citizens, and are in fact far more likely to be the victim of a crime rather than the perpetrator. This is exacerbated by the lack of any alternative perspectives on asylum issues. Reported statements across all sections of the media were overwhelmingly negative, with a disproportionate amount of time and space given to politicians at the expense of refugee groups and asylum seekers themselves.

Such reporting portrays asylum seekers and refugees as a threat, reinforcing and exploiting public fears and misunderstanding. The real consequences of these trends are highlighted through focus groups and interviews with refugees and asylum seekers, demonstrating a “powerful link between media representations and ordinary belief”. The authors clearly document how such reporting has created a climate of fear and intimidation, destabilising existing migrant communities and leading to an increase in verbal and physical abuse directed towards refugees and asylum seekers.


For those working in sectors concerned with migrant rights, the authors’ detailed account of the systematic demonisation, selective reporting and deliberate misreporting on issues concerning refugees and asylum seekers will come as no surprise. However, in light of the Leveson inquiry, and with politicians and media representatives still trying to reach an agreement on press regulation, this book provides a wealth of evidence that can be used by activists fighting for a more equal representation for refugees and asylum seekers, as well as an end to the vilification of these groups by politicians and journalists pandering to popular fears and misunderstandings surrounding an increasingly vulnerable section of society.

You can buy your copy of Bad News for Refugees online and direct from Puto, the publishers.

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