Many people in Britain believe that immigration is our biggest problem. In politics and media, it is certainly highly reported – which plays into our attention and the amount of importance we attach to a subject. By much of the coverage, immigration has become a word onto which the country is able to blame all it’s ills – housing, education, jobs, healthcare – problems in all of these areas have come to be blamed in part, or in large, on immigration.
This is due to an ever-flowing cycle of media and political debate, that continues stoking anti-immigration rhetoric, keeping it at the forefront and centre of debate, at the expense of other important issues.
“Media outlets often inflate or speculate about numbers of asylum seekers, refugees and immigrants. Newspaper and TV images play into the dominant stereotype of the young dangerous man breaking into Britain and threatening ‘our’ communities. 31 percent of headlines and 53 percent of text about asylum across all newspapers has negative connotations. Language used to describe immigration is highly hostile across all newspaper types, with ‘illegal’ and ‘bogus’ the most commonly used terms to describe immigrants and asylum seekers.
In addition to mis-reporting, there is also ‘over-reporting’. In 2002, for example, 25 percent of Daily Mail and 24 percent of Daily Express articles were about asylum.”
This extract is from the brilliant ‘How Politicians and the Media Made Us Hate Immigrants’ and explains how immigration is presented as an ‘uncomfortable truth’ and ‘what the public is really thinking’ despite politicians and the media being the perpetrators of the language, stereotypes and rhetoric used.
This leads to a back and forth between parties who then attempt to demonstrate they are taking a harder line against the immigration issue which they themselves have talked into high importance. An example of this being the ‘Go Home’ vans – an idea thrown up in the haste and fire of anti-immigration policy tennis between UKIP and the coalition. The move proved a step too far for the public, and the idea was dropped soon after it came into existence, but immigration remains at the centre of debate.
And while it continues to swamp the conversation, the issue is never really approached in a way that can allow analysis, or progressive debate. It remains unfettered with true statistics and facts, or long-term planned policy. Instead, the loaded language takes centre stage and is used as fact. The veil of ‘uncomfortable truth’ allows the politicians and media to remain vague about the factual aspect, yet weighted in their anti-immigration slant.
Create a problem, fix a problem
This maintains a steady air of anger and discrimination towards immigrants in the public sphere, and allows anti-immigration policy to be pushed through, despite it potentially being severely discriminatory. For example, the proposal to restrict healthcare to migrants for the first year of residency could be life-threatening should someone come to need it when falling ill unexpectedly or after an accident. But honing in on the effects in this way is left out of the political debate, due to risk of elevating immigrants to levels of human compassion and understanding. Instead, as a vague, negative sub-human force they are much more easily legislated against and blamed.
The rhetoric has also lead to huge amounts of time devoted to implementing ‘solutions’ to ‘problems’ that have been created through political and media conversation. For example, before Christmas the government promised to push ahead with plans to restrict other access to benefits for EU immigrants, such as housing benefits and employment allowances. The press and politicians vowed to fight ‘benefits tourism,’ and the extent of the coverage combined with continued speeches from politicians seemed to suggest that this was a huge issue that was bleeding the system dry. Yet, the EU released a report revealing that in most EU countries, the portion of EU migrants amongst welfare recipients was below 5%, as most migrants came to work or for family. Other research and fact-checks supported this:
“We found little empirical evidence that the problem existed.
But ministers continued to sound the alarm. Last year Chris Grayling warned that Britain’s welfare state could be “a magnet for other parts of the world”.
Again, we found that the facts didn’t support his case.”
Research has found that immigrants contribute £25bn to the UK economy. Yet legislation and media debate continues to attack immigrants, and politicians search for praise for doing it.
Similar problems have been created within the benefits system itself, with another law passing last year to increase penalties to a maximum jail term of ten years for those committing benefit fraud. Benefit fraud accounts for 0.7% of welfare spending – a level that has remained the same for a decade or so, yet the media campaigns and government rhetoric on ‘benefits cheats’ has created the idea that there is a more serious and growing problem. Around a quarter of all media coverage on welfare is about fraud, and this over-reporting leads to the creation of a problem in the public sphere, which does not exist in these proportions in reality. But policies are created to then deal with these ‘problems’ and the government receive praise for doing so, while other serious and damaging issues are once again left out of the limelight.
The impact of this kind of treatment of the immigration debate keeps an air of racism present in politics and amongst the public. The depictions in the media of immigrants and asylum seekers keep the public suspicious of visible ethnic minorities, who are seen as below them, or sub-human, undeserving of the same rights and services of those already here. The rhetoric is powerful and mature. And the impact of denying things such as healthcare to an immigrant who may be unfortunate enough to need it, is rarely seen or spoken about.
The attack on immigration is putting us back years in terms of race relations, as we now see pressure put on landlords and potentially doctors, to check immigration statuses of those needing their service. Suspicion will, like the media suggests, fall to those wearing cultural or ‘different’ clothing, with accents and different skin colours. And just as the words ‘scrounger’ and ‘skiver’ have entered the public language from media and politics, so too have the terms for immigrants as ‘illegals’ or ‘dodgy.’
And this blanket coverage of immigration is at the expense of everything else, as other issues are neglected and left out of debate, which can be fatal for services and other social issues.
The privatisation of the NHS has received markedly less coverage in the media. Similarly, the sell off of student loans with an increased interest rate has barely been mentioned in most news reports. In truth, immigration acts as a reliable smokescreen for politicians to fill public debate as other policies and issues are drowned out, allowing the government to continue with their course of action without public disapproval or knowledge.
And this perpetuating political showmanship will continue for as long as it maintains the status quo. We have seen this subject arouse and control the political debate time and time again during times of hardship. And the media often dictate that the election will be ‘won’ on a party’s line on immigration, or poke at politicians asking for a ‘harder line’ than the other party. When we see smaller parties such as the BNP and UKIP gain some electorate, despite their differences, it is to do with immigration. The effect of an unease thrust upon the public, stoking racial difference and entitlement, when people are struggling against austerity. To blind us with blanket coverage, as our NHS, education and social support is quietly snatched from our grasp.
Changing the debate
Immigration has been loaded with stereotypes and regressive attitudes through years of PR and media campaigns. It is used to distract debate, and divert anger at social problems to an already marginalized section of society. As this happens, government push through with damaging and unpopular policies that escape our sight.
We need to reject the language and media stereotypes of immigrants, and redress focus on issues such as the NHS, education and employment. In the run up to the election, politicians will up the ante on their immigration policies, but this will not solve the shortage of housing. It won’t protect the NHS. It won’t create employment or invest in young people’s futures. Immigration is used to divide people and now we need to reject the punch-and-judy show that rotates back forth between parties, in favour of implementing strong social policies and solutions to the problems that need our attention.
It seems strange that ‘Go Home’ advertisements were even tried in 2013. Political debate is regressing without people speaking up and rejecting what they’re told. We should start laying the foundations of a place we want to live in. As Shami Chakrabarti said, we need to look at the bigger picture here about what we want and what we should be working towards – ‘Do we want to be a foreigner in most places in the world? Or do we want to be a human being, everywhere in the world?’
by Kam Sandhu – @KamBass