Alex Kempton, Operations and Campaigns Manager at The Refugee Buddy Project, discusses the dominant media narratives and the creation of public attitudes towards migrants and people seeking refuge.

It doesn’t take much more than a cursory glance at the front pages of UK newspapers to see the type of language used when discussing people seeking refuge: words like swarm, flood, invasion, and illegals, and headlines reading Calais Crisis: Send in the dogs and Migrants: how many more can we take? These narratives feed directly into dominant discourses around Britain being under attack, collapsing under the numbers of people arriving and needing to fight back – sometimes literally – to prevent further incursions. 

In recent months, however, this narrative appears to have shifted dramatically, but only when referring to the newest arrivals – the Ukrainian refugees. The way in which Britain has welcomed and embraced Ukrainians is incredible, with over 100,000 people registering their interest for the Homes for Ukraine scheme in the first day alone. Alongside this positivity, the continuing background hum of anti-refugee rhetoric has not gone away, it simply has not been targeted at Ukrainians: rather the mainly Iraqi, Iranian and Afghan people seeking refuge often in small boats across the channel. 

In 2015, when the so-called migrant crisis in Europe was at its peak, traditional print media, television news and of course internet-based news sources, were giving wall-to-wall coverage to the apparent catastrophe occurring in Europe. Catastrophic not because of the risk to those seeking refuge – although some estimates have deaths in the Mediterranean in 2015 at over 1,500 – but because of the disastrous impact this would have on Europe. Not enough resources, not enough money, not enough housing; the fiction of scarcity was used again and again as a reason to refuse those entering the continent, all the while deliberately avoiding the obvious: most of those making that journey were from global-majority backgrounds. They were black and brown. They were the wrong kinds of refugees. 

Of course, it was not blanket negativity. There was sympathy from various sources, especially when young Alan Kurdi died on a beach in Turkey. This invoked an almost wholesale 180° -turn from the media, including newspapers like The Sun and The Daily Mail, which had previously been open about their disregard for the lives of those making the dangerous journey. The u-turn didn’t last long though, and within months of that tragic incident the narrative was back to being one of invasion again. 

This issue has been discussed in many places before, and a lot of academic research exists around the narratives used by the media when discussing people seeking refuge. One particular paper, written by Dr Taylor of Sussex University, looks specifically at the way in which metaphors are often invoked when considering refugees and migrants more generally. As mentioned, words like flood, and wave are singularly common in the British media and are of particular resonance to us here in Hastings, in close proximity to the sea and to the arrival of refugees from Calais. Dr Taylor also noted, however, that the most frequent metaphor used around the Windrush generation in contemporary politics is of builders: people coming to help the nation. This contrast begins to highlight the key tension in the narratives around people migrating – in all senses of the term – wherein those who come to ‘help’ are seen as welcome and deserving, whilst those who come out of their own need are deemed undeserving and unworthy.

This notion was seen with alarming clarity in the case of Mamoudou Gassama, a Malian man given a medal and citizenship after saving a young French child from falling off of a balcony. Having travelled first to Italy via boat from Libya – a notoriously dangerous route which landed him in prison after the first attempt – Gassama then travelled to France where he was classed as an illegal immigrant and housed in a hostel with around 10,000 other Malians. At a time when anti-immigrant rhetoric was rampant in France – and across Europe – life wasn’t exactly looking perfect for Gassama, but that all changed when he saved the life of a French toddler. In an incredible feat which left him with the moniker of Spiderman, Gassama scrambled up the side of a building to prevent the toddler – who had been left alone by his French parents – from tumbling over the balcony edge. This led to him being given not only the Honour medal for courage and devotion, but also citizenship by the French President, who told him he was a hero. 

Scene from a 2016 pro-refugee demonstration in London
CREDIT: Dave Young

This conversion from illegal immigrant to deserving citizen was based purely on Gassama’s ability to help the county into which he migrated. By rescuing a French child he became worthy of praise, worthy of support and worthy of citizenship, of permission to live his life in France. This contrasts sharply with the way in which other Malians are treated in France, and indeed with the way parents saving the lives of their own children, by bringing them to Europe to escape wars in their own countries, are treated. People arriving from Calais in small boats with their children – often babes in arms – are denigrated for putting their children in such danger. Yet surely they are simply performing a similarly miraculous feat in order to save the lives of their children? 

None of this is new of course. Dr Taylor’s research, mentioned above, cites newspapers going back 200 years, and we all remember, either first hand or via the collective memory of repetition, the way in which people migrating have been framed over the years. In the 1990s and early 2000s, much of the ire was focussed on Eastern Europeans arriving courtesy of the free movement afforded to them as their countries joined the EU. With stories of buses full of people clamouring to leave Romania and threats of 29 million Bulgarian and Romanians arriving here, the media has not traditionally been positive towards Eastern Europeans migrating to the UK. Why then the sudden support for Ukrainian refugees fleeing the war?

The UNHCR has reported they have helped over 1.2 million Ukrainians since the war started just over 100 days ago and are expecting this number to continue to grow. As of 23 May the UK had taken in over 65,000 Ukrainian refugees. How does this number compare to the arrival of other refugees? In 2021 the UNHCR reports show the UK receiving 48,540 asylum applications, and so far in 2022, estimates place the number of small boat crossings at around 10,000. This number is regularly referred to as a flood, out of control, an invasion, a crisis, and yet is just one sixth of the number of Ukrainians arriving in a shorter space of time. 

The divisive narratives of the media feed into the phenomenon of directing sympathy and empathy at particular groups only, often groups whose lives, cultures and skin colour most closely resembles our own. States across the world continue to simultaneously dehumanise those seeking refuge and per-secute and prosecute those assisting them. It is hard to feel as if this moment in time, where support has swelled for those escaping the horrors of war, will be anything other than a temporary state. But perhaps it has shown to a wider audience what many of us have known forever: that the colour of your skin and your country of origin have a greater impact on the level of empathy you receive, and often, the level of state support you are given. This cannot continue to be the basis of our immigration system, or indeed our morality as a nation.

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