What about the individual? Arguing for a more human approach to migration reporting

This week the UK government committed £12 million to a joint intervention fund intended to support France in policing the UK border at Calais. As the closest port to the UK, Calais has been a transit point for migrants hoping to get to the UK from the Middle East, Asia and Africa for much of the last decade, making the headlines at several ‘critical’ moments. In recent weeks the border again made headlines when Calais’ Mayor Natacha Bouchart threatened to block the port if Britain did not do more to help with the 1,300 or so migrants that had, in her words, taken the city “hostage”. “It is time”, she argued, “for the UK government to take responsibility”.

The international stakes are high. EU regulation means that anyone seeking asylum in the EU gets only one opportunity to have an asylum application considered, usually in the first country they reach; a claim cannot be made in any subsequent destination. This inevitably means that those countries on the Eastern and Southern borders – e.g. Greece, Malta and Italy – ‘bear the brunt’ of the influx. There is strong debate over the efficacy of the Dublin II Regulation, which has, according to critics, promoted ‘burden-shifting’ over ‘burden-sharing’ and simply fails to “make provision for responsibility sharing”. For those who see the UK’s immigration policy and existing migrant communities as a “magnet” for (especially English-speaking) migrants, there is strong belief that the UK should accept greater responsibility.

Despite efforts to deter migrants by closing centres and destroying camps, the port continues to attract migrants seeking a new life in the UK. Today these migrants are coming predominantly from Somalia, Sudan, Eritrea and Syria. Many of them are children and most are living in squalid and unsanitary conditions in makeshift camps, relying on food hand outs and charity.

Representations of the deviant and desperate migrant

The representation of these migrants in the media has tended to portray them en masse as a ‘swarm’ of dangerous criminals whose invasion of our ‘green and pleasant lands’ is to be feared. They must be ‘controlled’ and ‘tackled’. Images of migrants scaling fences and sneaking onto lorries and ferries reinforces the already prevalent idea of ‘the migrant’ as deviant and criminal. As Sociologist Les Back explains, “the figure of the refugee and the asylum-seeker has been transformed from a political émigré to a de facto criminal and now a terrorist… their alleged involvement in ‘violent crime’ is a routine reference point in the media”.[1]

The same images are also used to emphasise the desperation of migrants: without food or shelter they have nothing to lose and will risk everything to get to Britain. Although often intended to foster compassion and generosity, representations of migrants as vulnerable, needy and hopeless are not without problems, especially where they set up “relationships of debt and gratitude” that position the ‘host’ society as magnanimous and generous Europe and the migrant/exile as grateful, and implicitly indebted. The migrants in Calais do need help – the camps at Calais are, after all, a disgrace – yet, academics, journalists and politicians must think carefully about how to present this need in a way that does not dehumanise or disempower the migrants within an implicit hierarchy of debt and gratitude.

Revealing the human side of migration

Images and representations of ‘the migrant’ as criminal and deviant are significant. They shape opinions and attitudes, the way we imagine ‘the migrant’, and who we imagine and/or perceive him/her to be.[2] There is a substantial body of work on media representations of migrants describing migrants commonplace depiction as either ‘object’ – a dehumanised number or statistic to be controlled or pitied – or ‘abject’ – illegal, irregular, violent and criminal. What is less common, at least in mainstream media and political debates in Europe’s ‘host’ societies, is migrants’ depiction as active human subjects.

There is often a lack of personalisation in the representation of asylum seekers’ and migrants’ journeys and, according to Dr Melissa Phillips, “it can be very difficult to find individual stories behind the frenzied media headlines claiming thousands more people are potentially on their way”. And yet, she argues, it is “only through individual stories and nuanced accounts… that we will better understand the factors driving mobility”. Moreover, by ‘naming the nameless’ we can hopefully start to disrupt the idea that some lives, some people matter more than others. Of course, as has happened throughout history, the exclusion, subjugation and suffering of ‘others’ is legitimated by their dehumanisation. In the UK the stories of ‘terrified’, ‘suffering’ lorry drivers arrive much more readily and frequently than the individual stories of migrants, like Elsheikh Ibrahim, who spend years trying to reach the UK. Their stories appear “only fleetingly… like a newsflash across the screen of conscience”.

As people continue to arrive in the port of Calais, despite closing centres, destruction of camps, and erecting of fences, we could all do with a bit of perspective. The migrants in Calais are coming from known war and disaster zones – Somalia, Sudan, Eritrea and Syria – and represent a tiny percentage of the displaced populations of those countries. In fact, in 2013, developing countries hosted 86% of the world’s refugees. Moreover, unlike much of Europe, the UK still controls its borders and, of those who make it to the UK, thousands are caught, detained and deported every year. Yet these statistics continue to obscure the more empowered, autonomous human subject. While there are attempts to humanise and individualise migrants’ stories, they are unfortunately few and far between.

Further resources

VIDEO: UK failing to share burden of migration crisis, says southern Europe http://www.theguardian.com/world/2011/oct/07/uk-migration-crisis-southern-europe

REPORT: Migration in the News: Portrayals of Immigrants, Migrants, Asylum Seekers and
Refugees in National British Newspapers, 2010-2012 http://www.migrationobservatory.ox.ac.uk/sites/files/migobs/Report%20-%20migration%20in%20the%20news.pdf

Migrants journeys through Calais http://www.migrantvoice.org/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=498:from-europe-to-the-uk-migrants-in-calais&catid=46:migration-matters

Unmasking Deviance: The Visual Construction of Asylum Seekers and Refugees in English National Newspapers http://shura.shu.ac.uk/6900/1/Banks-_UnmaskingDeviance-_draft.pdf

[1] I’ve written before about the importance of considering the figurative character of the migrant. There is an important discursive difference between ‘a migrant’ – defined as someone who moves to a country other than that of his/her usual residence for at least a year – and ‘the migrant’ as a folk devil that exists in contrast to ‘the Good Citizen’. The figure of ‘the migrant’ incorporates migrants (and non-migrants) across a range of identities and positionings, often signifying deviance from the ‘norm’, rather than actual migration (See the writing of Bridget Anderson and Anne-Marie Fortier).

[2] Recognising the imagined nature of immigration is crucial in countries like the UK, where research shows that attitudes toward migration vary in relation to the type of immigrant in question.

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