Immigration anxieties played a significant role in British people’s decision in June 2016 to vote to leave the EU. This has fuelled a debate over the quality of media reporting on migration issues.
In order to get a better idea of the role the media played, we examined nearly 1,000 news items, feature articles and editorials from six UK newspapers: the Daily Mail, Daily Mirror, the Sun, the Times, the Daily Telegraph and the Guardian, published in 2006 and in 2013.
These were politically important years: 2006 was the year before Bulgaria and Romania joined the EU and the time when it was becoming clear that migration forecasts for the countries that joined the EU in 2004 had been way off. In 2013 David Cameron, delivered his Bloomberg speech in which he promised the EU referendum.
One thing that quickly became apparent was that media coverage contained a selective mixture of statistics, reported comments from politicians and other public figures, academic studies, think-tank reports, and emotive polemics backed with no evidence at all. The practice of mentioning evidence in passing and then dismissing or overriding it was also present.
Bolt the door
The most prominent theme was that mobility within the EU damages British sovereignty. Newspapers from across the political spectrum suggested that intra-EU mobility was impossible to control and that the free movement principle overrides British sovereignty. The theme was also marked by growing scepticism towards migration data and evidence.
The language used to describe EU migration tended to emphasise quantity and scale (“mass”, “vast”, “large scale”). There were lots of “floods” and “waves” and extensive use of military metaphors (“army”, “war”, “battle”, “siege” or “hordes”) in the tabloid press.
When covering migration from Bulgaria and Romania, the press regularly trotted out the figure of 29m migrants – which, in fact, is the combined population of the two countries. Rather than reporting on actual migration of Bulgarians and Romanians, papers preferred hypothetical scenarios where they would migrate en masse simply because they could.
An opinion piece from the Sun, dated September 22 2006, claimed that “any Bulgarian or Romanian will be free to come here as they please – and come they will, because their own countries are very poor and there is no work”.
Overall, the Guardian did a better job than the other papers when it came to using evidence. An article from 2013 used statistics form the Department of Work and Pensions to reveal that immigration to Britain from southern European member states had increased by 50% while using national insurance registrations to show that “data shows little evidence of any surge in Romanians or Bulgarians arriving”.
One article in the Sun covered the story from a different angle, arguing that because of the negative impact of the financial crisis on the building trade in Italy and Spain, migrant workers were bound to be laid off and flood into Britain. The article was centred on an interview with “jobless William Razval, 24” – who, it said, “is desperate to lead the exodus”.
The topic of EU nationals abusing the welfare system was the second most popular theme. Despite official figures, newspapers often chose to ignore evidence and play on public fears that welfare abuse was all but inevitable.
The press trotted out crude decontextualised comparisons between living standards in Britain and eastern Europe. Once again, newspapers focused on the hypothetical possibility of welfare abuse, rather than on specific instances where it has actually taking place. In 2006, Tony Parsons, then a columnist with the Daily Mirror, asked: “At what point does mass immigration, even if it’s good for the economy, push our social services to breaking point?”
Nothing much had changed by March 2013, when a news article from the Times quoted Iain Duncan Smith, who claimed that it was “too easy for EU migrants to claim access to social housing, health care and tax credits” without providing any evidence as to show how many were actually doing so. In June of the same year, the Daily Mail sounded a familiar dog whistle, claiming: “It is easy to imagine how a public fed up with abuses of the welfare state would react.”
In light of recent arguments that journalists become increasing proactive in framing and reshaping migration debates instead of being content with reporting them, it is important to assess the relationship between news coverage and evidence. After all, anti-immigration, eurosceptic reporting did much of the grunt work for the Leave camp and put immigration anxieties in the centre of Brexit discussions and negotiations.
Now we are faced with the danger of race-to-the-bottom post-Brexit immigration policies where EU citizens could be downgraded to migrants overnight on the basis of unsupported anxieties and wild speculations.
Author: Denny Pencheva – Associate Teacher, UK and EU migration policies; Assistant Teacher, Comparative Politics, University of Bristol
Disclosure statement: Denny Pencheva does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.
We were privileged and honoured to be able to work on this project with the Sex Work Alliance of Jamaica (SWAJ), a very grassroots NGO run by and for sex workers, and when we had the opportunity to launch and showcase our project at two events at the British Academy last week (one titled “Talking Trafficking With Sex Worker and LGBTQ Voices From Jamaica”), we invited members of the SWAJ team to join us.In the end, however, only the Director, Miriam Haughton, was able to come to the UK. The experience of our other partners speaks volumes about the way in which contemporary talk of “modern slavery” works to deflect attention from the afterlives of actual, transatlantic slavery and colonialism.
Since 2005, United States’ Trafficking in Persons (TIP) Reports have consistently portrayed Jamaica as having a rampant problem with “child sex tourism” and “sex trafficking” (both of which are now dubbed “modern slavery” by some NGOs and politicians). Indeed, TIP reports and the media coverage they prompt give the impression that “sex trafficking” in general and “child sex trafficking” in particular are the most serious problems associated with commercial sex in Jamaica. They also suggest that the Jamaican Government urgently needs to toughen up its action against the criminals involved. To the extent that the tourism industry is seen to have a role in combatting this type of “modern slavery”, it is largely imagined as supporting efforts at crime control by training staff to “spot the signs of trafficking” and report it to the authorities. Our research asked, among other things, what adult sex workers, especially those who started to sell sex when aged below 18, have to say about the problems facing those who sell sex in Jamaica, and whether they see tougher law and law enforcement against trafficking as the solution to these problems.
We conducted research with sex workers and with people who work in tourism and in the informal tourism economy. Though data analysis is not yet complete, a key finding so far is that although our sex worker participants turned to sex work for economic reasons, as opposed to being forced into it by any third party, they nonetheless routinely experience violence (often very serious violence), robbery, and exploitation. In fact, data from our interviews and a survey of 70 sex workers suggests that violence is the norm, not the exception, for sex workers in Jamaica. The perpetrators are not criminals trafficking people into the sex trade, however. They are largely customers, members of the public, and crucially, police officers, who assault people because they are sex workers.
Our interviewees state that their vulnerability to such high levels of violence is a direct result of the laws that criminalise sex work, and the stigma that attaches to it. In the case of male and trans sex workers, a double stigmatisation and criminalisation operates, since buggery remains a criminal offense in Jamaica and there is a great deal of anti-gay prejudice. Criminalisation and stigmatisation mean that when people are raped, beaten, cheated or robbed, they cannot turn to the police for protection or justice (especially when it is a police officer who victimizes them). Understandably, then, far from being eager to see more criminalisation in the guise of anti-trafficking, most of our sex worker interviewees and survey respondents want to see the decriminalisation of prostitution and of homosexuality in Jamaica. With regards to children, our respondents agree that persons under 18 should not be working in the sex industry, but again argue that criminalisation is not the answer. In fact, even referral to child protection services may not help, given that abuse and violence in children’s homes is a serious problem.
Above all, the sex workers and tourism workers we interviewed argued that whether below and above the age of 18, what ordinary Jamaicans really need are policies that create economic and educational opportunities and inclusion, instead of exclusion and criminalisation.
Exclusion, Criminalisation and Slavery
If we want to make the analytical link between slavery on the one hand, and poor working conditions, exploitation and violence today on the other, we need to remember that through the history of transatlantic slavery, freedom and slavery were racialised. Freedom was coded as white; only those of white European descent were seen as fit for the rights and freedoms of citizenship. Those racialised as black were imagined as too uncivilised and too brutish for freedom. They lacked honour, their word could not be trusted, they needed Masters to control and speak for them. This ideology did not end when slavery was abolished.
In the Caribbean as well as the US following abolition, formerly enslaved persons were regarded as a dangerous, threatening, “masterless” class of person, and the criminal law was increasingly used to discipline and control them. Their efforts to live independently were a particular focus of control and punishment. This fostered an association between blackness and criminality and an intensification of all the dehumanising stereotypes that had been used to justify slavery, which is to say, racist stereotypes about black people as lazy, feckless, untrustworthy, dishonourable, cheats, thieves and liars.
Those stereotypes continue to operate in Jamaica today, especially in relation to individuals who are unable to access the education and jobs that confer “respectability” and belonging. This is a significant portion of the population, because far from having been compensated for the ravages caused by centuries of colonisation and slavery, Jamaica has been further damaged by external interventions in the form of international debt and the austerity packages tied to loans. In fact, the Jamaican Government is compelled to spend more on international debt repayments than on education and welfare combined, which means large numbers of ordinary Jamaicans are unable to secure the basic education required even to get low paid, precarious work in tourism.
The tourism industry extends and deepens those lines of exclusion. The All Inclusive model, for instance, encloses tourists behind fences and razor wire and security systems, significantly reducing opportunities for ordinary Jamaicans to independently make a living on the beach by selling jewellery, tours, drinks, fruit and so on, to tourists. Indeed, if a local beach seller so much as sits on a sun lounger next to a tourist to show her their wares, hotel security guards or tourist police officers will come and chase the local off. Tourists enjoy the rights and freedoms normally associated with citizenship, Jamaicans (at least those who are poor) do not. They are regarded with suspicion and hostility, policed as potential threats. And though they often have many ingenious and creative ideas for small businesses and independent entrepreneurship, they are shut out from opportunities to realise their projects. They cannot secure loans to start businesses, and often cannot even get a bank account, again because those who are poor and unemployed are assumed to be scammers and scoundrels.
This returns me to our partners from SWAJ, who paid a large amount of money to apply for visas to enter the UK to attend our launch events. They took with them to their visa interviews letters of invitation from the British Academy stating the purpose of their visit to the UK, and noting that the visit would be fully funded. We booked their flights and their hotel accommodation, and sent them proof of this to take to their visa interview. But despite all this evidence, UK Visas and Immigration refused them visas and implicitly accused them of being liars, cheats and criminals. Here is an extract from one refusal letter:
I am not satisfied that you are a genuine visitor or that you have sufficient funds to cover all reasonable costs in relation to your visit without working or accessing public funds… I am not satisfied as to your intentions in wishing to travel to the UK… I am not satisfied that you genuinely intend a short visit only… and that you will leave the UK at the end of the visit.
How dare UKVI charge money for a service they don’t provide and then add a string of insults like this to the injury? The answer links closely to our research findings. They dare because Jamaicans (at least Jamaicans who do not belong to a wealthy elite) are still not really regarded as the proper subjects of freedom, and so are still not valued as persons of honour.
Lyndsey Stonebridge has recently argued that rather than becoming subjects of human rights law in the post-World War II era, as European refugees did, the displaced and dispossessed peoples of the global south became objects of humanitarian attention, separate and unequal from the “international community” that claims to act on their behalf. One consequence of this is that European and North American researchers and experts can freely roam the globe, while the mobility of their counterparts in the global south continues to be pathologized and heavily restricted. Jamaicans can contribute to research on “modern slavery”, but are not guaranteed a place alongside British academics and policy makers at the table where that research is disseminated and policy is discussed. Emancipation from slavery was not, and apparently still is not, the same thing as freedom and equality.
Decriminalisation and Beyond
Criminalisation and marginalisation are social forces that have been critical to the application of colonial and post-colonial state power. In this respect, Jamaicans like our partners at SWAJ who are fighting for the decriminalisation of consensual acts of same-sex intimacy and of sex work are part of a wider and on-going struggle both to undo colonialism and transform oppressive practices adopted or maintained by post-independence states. That struggle is hindered, not helped, by the dominant global north discourse on “trafficking and modern slavery” and its overwhelming preoccupation with criminal law and law enforcement in global south countries like Jamaica. Policy attention needs to shift to the factors that actually leave our research partners and participants vulnerable to exploitation and violence. Rather than talking “trafficking”, we need to be talking about matters such as: tackling marginalisation and criminalisation; eliminating international debt; combatting tax evasion and avoidance by big businesses; and making reparations for the historical wrongs of slavery and colonialism – one preliminary element of which in the UK would be the complete removal of all immigration controls on people from former British colonies.
And welcome to Migration Mobilities Bristol! For those of you who do not know us yet we are a Specialist Research Institute at the University of Bristol. We comprise a network of academics, practitioners and others who are interested in human movement and who want to expand and challenge understandings of mobility in order to contribute to a more just world. You can find out more about us here.
There’s been a longstanding interest in migration at Bristol, nurtured by colleagues like Katharine Charsley and Jon Fox for years before I came here, and later Julia O’Connell Davidson and Chris Bertram. It’s been very exciting working with people to think about our next steps. This has been a genuinely interdisciplinary effort, with lots of different faculties contributing, and our fantastic advisory board includes people from History, English, Geography, Philosophy, Social Sciences, Film and Television Studies and Law.
How to research migration?
We’ve developed a set of four research challenges with a view to helping us to enrich the study of migration through making unexpected connections, and to demonstrate to non-migration scholars and policymakers just how important migration is. This is critical work because while we have seen a massive increase in research on migration the movement of some people continues to be scapegoated and demonised, their journeys becoming ever more dangerous and their attempts to successfully claim asylum ever more difficult. For academics this means we must grapple with how to research ‘migration’ without contributing to the construction of the strongly imagined problem ‘migrant’? I’ll do a quick plug here for the MSc Migration and Mobility Studies which is a fantastic course for people who want to think critically and about migration and migration policies, and learn new research skills.
This blog contributes to our ambition to promote new thinking on people and movement. We hope that it will showcase research and good practice and be a space where you can make unexpected connections and try out ideas.
We don’t only need good news stories so let’s be unafraid to share our learning from mistakes and wrong turns. We want to challenge the boundaries between theory and practice, between the university and practitioners, between citizens and non-citizens, so please, feel free to join in the conversations and contribute to this blog series.