In the third of our Birthday Blogs, Media Officer Julia Ravenscroft looks back at media perceptions of asylum in the 2000s. It was a difficult time for asylum seekers and those who worked with them, but are things any better today?
Ah, the noughties. It was the decade that began with 9/11 and the War on Terror, and ended with the global financial crisis. It was the era in which Internet use and social networking exploded across the globe. It was also the decade that brought us the first African-American president.
For Refugee Action the noughties presented lots of opportunities to support people seeking asylum, but it also presented us with huge challenges. Not least of these was the increase in hostile public opinion as asylum seekers were demonised in sections of the media. Suddenly it seemed barely a day went by without yet another headline screaming about the ‘scroungers’, ‘bogus asylum seekers’ and ‘illegal refugees’ teeming over our borders, taking our jobs, houses and benefits.
In the case of mass negative asylum coverage, many partially blamed Government actions at the turn of the decade. Asylum seekers were now dispersed away from London and into communities across the country, who felt they had little information about who they were and why they were there. It didn’t make a difference that asylum seekers had no choice about where they lived; the fact was they were arriving in towns and cities, and some people did not know why. The media picked up on this concern as any newspaper or broadcaster would, but asylum seekers and the people who worked with them were not prepared for the resulting deluge of ill-informed attacks. These spread far beyond the immediate communities where they were now living, and the term ‘asylum seeker’ quickly became one of abuse.
It’s impossible to write about this issue without remembering some of the worst excesses. As Roy Greenslade said in Seeking Scapegoats: The coverage of asylum in the UK press (IPPR Working Paper, 2005): “For the last four years there has been an identifiable competition between certain papers to see which can attract the greatest number of readers by publishing the most hostile stories, features and opinions about asylum-seekers and refugees. This distasteful contest has been most obvious at the Daily Mail, Daily Express and The Sun.” In one study in 2003, the Daily Express was shown to have run 22 front-page stories about asylum-seekers and refugees in a 31-day period.
Some of the most preposterous headlines included ‘Plot to Kill Blair’ courtesy of the Daily Express, in which two Lithuanian men had been found a mile away from the Prime Minister’s home. This story was subsequently strongly contradicted by the police. There was also the even more infamous Sun headline which shocked the nation: ‘SWAN BAKE: Asylum seekers steal the Queen’s birds for barbecues.’ However, it was the drip-feed of stories that repeatedly asserted asylum seekers were getting the best houses, receiving lots of benefits, were liars and were working the system that cranked up the most hostility and anger towards them. An Ipsos MORI survey, commissioned in 2002 by Refugee Action and other charities on behalf of the Refugee Week partnership, revealed the public estimated that Britain hosted nearly a quarter (23%) of the world’s refugees and asylum seekers – the real number was less than 2%.
Refugee Action had a responsibility to respond to this. One of the problems was that asylum seekers and refugees did not have a human face or a voice. They were lumped together under a legal term. We placed their voices at the centre of our media strategies and ensured we spoke out to present the facts. We also attempted to address issues arising between British communities and asylum seekers who had been dispersed into them. In the Derwent Estate, Derby, Refugee Action launched a support project in partnership with New Deal for Communities. It supported the Derwent Zambezi Association, a refugee community organisation formed by asylum seekers, refugees and African-Caribbean residents in the area, which attracted a diverse membership including British-born local residents.
In 2005, Refugee Action set up the Refugee Awareness Project (RAP) in Nottingham, Liverpool and Bristol, in which British and refugee volunteers visited statutory and community groups to speak with them about refugee issues and the asylum system and tell their own stories. Refugee Action is also a major partner on the Refugee Week partnership, and the ‘noughties’ saw the direction of the week steer towards celebrating the contribution of refugees and asylum seekers to the UK. As the decade drew to a close, Refugee Week introduced the Simple Acts campaign, encouraging people to take up one or more ‘simple acts’ to welcome or learn more about refugees. To date, more than 27,000 acts have been registered on the website.
As we move into the next decade, we have seen a fall in the number of scaremongering asylum stories as numbers of people seeking asylum has decreased and the focus switched to Eastern European arrivals. However, no-one is complacent. Just this week a study carried out by Oxford University into Britain’s concerns about immigration shows more than half want to see a fall in the number of asylum seekers coming to the UK, even though they make up just 4% of migrants. (Thinking behind the numbers, The Migration Observatory, Oxford University, October 2011). With this in mind, Refugee Action is determined to continue to fight for the rights of asylum seekers, challenge negative perceptions and present the facts just as they are.
Posted by Eleanor Dean