Political language and asylum seekers

Europe is facing its largest refugee crisis since WWII. The language politicians use to describe the crisis plays an important role in shaping public discussion.

To get a deeper understanding we spoke with Gareth Millington who is an urban sociologist at the University of York, York and the author of “Racism, class ethos and place: the value of context in narratives about asylum‐seekers”.

ResearchGate: British politician Philip Hammond has called asylum seekers “marauding” and David Cameron described them as a “swarm”. How does the language politicians use to describe asylum seekers affect public perception?

Gareth Millington: I would say that this kind of language reinforces a public perception, constructed since the decades immediately following post-WWII, concerning overseas and non-white immigrants who wish to come to Britain, or towards those who do actually settle here. The contours of the grand narrative used to discuss social and cultural “Others” who are attempting to enter Britain changes slightly according to social, economic and political context but has remained remarkably consistent, especially so in the way that migrants are stigmatized: as scroungers, criminals, having excessively large families etc. My view is that such language does not have a 'direct' effect on the public because people these days get their information about immigrants and asylum seekers from a variety of different sources. In fact, many people in Britain have been critical of the language used by politicians. Politicians have faced a great deal of ridicule for their ‘stern’ pronouncements. They are viewed by many as incompetent and ineffective, as playing to the gallery rather than seriously addressing a pressing social issue. The crux really is that public perception is by no means homogenous, not does it lack strands of critical awareness.

RG: What is your opinion on how the British public currently view asylum-seekers?

Millington: Well, some people are very hostile; some people are very, very welcoming. Some people hold contradictory views. Cognitive dissonance is very common i.e. people may welcome immigration on one hand for its economic benefits but oppose it on social and cultural grounds, arguing that migrants are 'taking over', causing overcrowding or diluting British culture. Public perception of immigration and asylum is complicated and contradictory. It requires ongoing sociological research and sensitivity to the various motivations and extraneous factors that provide the context for the things people say about immigration. It's not always as simple as it sounds. In sociological terms, the words are not all there is.

RG: Does the sometimes harsh language used by politicians actually convert to tougher policies?

Millington: Rather I would say such pronouncements are attempts to legitimize exclusionary policies that are already in existence, mechanisms such as the three Ds: dispersal, detention and deportation. These are tough measures certainly and cause a great deal of misery. The things that politicians say make it seem like these are the only possible solutions to the asylum problem they help to construct. Of course, the aim for mainstream politicians is to talk tough and be recognized by the electorate as doing so. It appears that the political field does not allow them to talk in any other way but 'tough'. The 2015 General Election was evidence of this. Labour even produced a campaign mug emblazoned with the slogan ‘Controls on Immigration’. It is absolutely ridiculous. They are just responding to a perceived fear that the public thinks they might be ‘soft’ on immigration.

In short then, the tough language does not create policy as such, though it may help legitimize certain measures that have been implemented to control immigration to Britain. Or, more importantly, such language makes it seem like a different approach to the issues of immigration and asylum is unthinkable. For me, the language used by politicians is addressed to the political field primarily rather than the actual issue of immigration or asylum. Such pronouncements contribute to a series of political language games. The mug is a good example of this. Yet, and it is important to remember this, these control measures have not been implemented without opposition or criticism. There are some very critical voices out there. For instance, people hated that mug! People could read straight away that it was fundamentally insincere. Moreover, the truth is that however tough the talking or the measures are in Britain, people are still desperate to come here. We would do well to better understand why that is the case and try and live up to their positive images and expectations rather than to quash them.

RG: Is this hostile perception of migrants reversible?

Millington: It is and this is process that is always already occurring. But it’s not simply a process of reversing public opinion. As I state earlier, public perception is complicated and contradictory. Many individuals and organizations work and campaign on behalf on asylum seekers and immigrants in the UK. They always challenge the dominant political rhetoric about immigration and asylum. If we begin from the position that Britain is only hostile we are doing the people who want to come here a disservice. We are treating them like children, as if they are completely deluded. The belief held by many migrants trying to enter Britain, from places like Calais, that Britain is safe and welcoming (at least relatively speaking) is not a complete fallacy. They get this information from people already living here. People who tell them to come. The notion that Britain is welcoming and/or safe does have some truth to it, but then so does the opposite view that the British are hostile to immigrants. Yarl’s Wood and the other detention centres are evidence of this. Rather than reversing public opinion, what would be welcome, is for mainstream politicians to find and adopt new ways of talking publicly about immigration, migrants and asylum seekers. It seems to me that it is the political class rather than the public or practitioners that are constrained by what they can and can’t say or think.

RG: How important is language in changing the perception of migrants in Britain? What would that language look like?

Millington: What this language would look and sound like I'm not sure, but I'd hope it would be along the lines of viewing hospitality as a social and moral responsibility that Britain (and indeed Europe) embraces and is keen to deliver in as humane a fashion as is possible. I’m really taken with Derrida’s notion of the ‘city of refuge’, places where new forms of solidarity are being invented and where we don’t quite have the language yet to describe these developing social bonds. I do actually think that as well as all the difficulties that migrants and host communities face and the abrasive encounters that do occur—and we should never ignore or underestimate these—new kinds of heterogeneous urban communities are being forged in Britain. And these are just as likely, if not more likely, to be found in our smaller cities and towns as they are in London.

Image courtesy of Photo Unit