Yesterday, the RSC Director, Professor Alexander Betts, spoke with Canada’s CBC The Current about the language chosen by politicians and the media to describe those seeking asylum and refuge in Europe and elsewhere. Recent examples have included the UK Prime Minister referring to the refugees and migrants crossing the Mediterranean as a ‘swarm’, and Philip Hammond, the UK Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, describing migrants as ‘marauding’ in Calais.
Professor Betts stated that: “Politicians these days are very attuned to tabloid newspaper headlines, media headlines that exaggerate numbers and use similar language, and I think feeding that back to the public is in some ways quite strategic and likely to be a way of showing empathy with public concerns”. However, he said it shows “a complete disregard and disrespect for the need to be much more cautious, show much more leadership in how we use language and recognize that many of these people coming are not illegal migrants, that these metaphors are really damaging, and that we need to articulate better who is coming from where and why they’re coming.”
He continued that “Politicians are in a position…where they can show leadership, where they need to be honest with the public, and in the case of Calais we’re talking about 3-4000 migrants trying to cross to the UK in a context where around 175,000 have come across the Mediterranean to Greece and Italy this year, and…where we have more displaced people around the world than at any time since the 2nd World War. But 95% of the world’s refugees are not in Europe, they’re not coming to the UK, they’re actually in countries that neighbour conflict or crisis.”
He stated that while the current crisis is being depicted as a ‘migrant crisis’, it is in reality a refugee crisis in that most of those crossing the Mediterranean, or trying to cross from Calais, are coming from countries like Syria, Somalia, Afghanistan, and Eritrea, which are refugee-producing countries. He said, “if we describe it as a migrant crisis it makes it appear as if these people are economic migrants, that they’re seeking to better themselves, and that they’ve actually got a significant amount of choice. That misrepresents.”
When asked what responsibility the media has regarding the use of such language, he said they had “enormous responsibility”, adding that, in the UK, the tabloid press “often tries to depict asylum seekers as ‘bogus’ or illegitimate or not genuine, and that shapes and changes public opinion which changes the whole electoral calculus and the pressure that comes from politicians who ultimately need to get elected.” He concluded by stating that “the media needs to be very aware of how it uses language… It’s got to recognize that it actually does real harm to vulnerable people. We’ve seen nine people die in the last few weeks trying to cross from Calais to the UK, we’ve seen many, many more drown in the Mediterranean, and I think it’s realistic to say part of the complicity for those really serious outcomes and the denial of vulnerable refugees to territory can be attributed to irresponsible journalism when it’s at its worst.”