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Public Attitudes Towards Asylum Seekers Sociology Essay

Info: 3118 words (12 pages) Essay
Published: 1st Jan 2015 in Sociology

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"Immigrant Killer", "Paedo Asylum Seeker", "Asylum perv". Just three examples from the 1415 asylum and immigration articles reported in The Sun from 2003 to 2007. Is it any wonder that the general public's opinions on such issues are generally very prejudice. In 1951, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) was established by the Refugee Convention, which gave a definition of a refugee. It states that a refugee is someone who is outside the country of their nationality, and is unable to, or unwilling to, avail themselves to the protection of that country due to a fear of being persecuted because of associations with race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion (UNHCR 2001-2013a). Although often confused, an asylum seeker is in contrast, someone who says they are a refugee but their claim for asylum has not yet been definitively evaluated. Therefore they are someone who is "seeking" asylum/refuge but their status is not yet confirmed (UNHCR 2001-2013b).

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The mass media creates panic amongst the public through the false or misleading stories which cast asylum seekers in a negative light. The mass media industry is one of the most powerful sources of providing information on a large scale, and has been utilised throughout history as a tool to appeal to large public audiences. Eldridge (1997, p65) states that "The media, wittingly or unwittingly, reproduces the definitions of the powerful". Suggesting that the media "feeds" information to the public making society believe what the powerful bodies what them to believe. However, there is a shared relationship between newspapers and their audiences. This means that the papers report on what they assume the people think, supporting and reinforcing general attitudes on strong issues. This in turn sets off a chain reaction where escalation of reflection and enhancement buries the truth and reality under myth and prejudice. Cohen (1972) coined the term "Moral Panic" to which he describes the media as causing extra or unwarranted worry to society about particular values and principles that may already be a turning the issue into a national catastrophe. Cohen (1972, p9) describes the features of a moral panic to be "a condition, episode, person or group of persons who become defined as a threat to societal values and interests". This essay will look at the moral panics created by the media towards the issue of immigration and asylum seekers and assess the extent to which public attitudes towards asylum seekers and refugees are a reflection of negative and hostile media reporting's of migration issues.

An interest in public attitudes towards immigration, asylum seekers and refugees has been around for several decades. However, Finney and Peach (2004) argues that it wasn't until the immigration dispersal policy was put in place in 2000, and the introduction of policies for accommodation centres, that a concern for public attitudes was amplified. Jowell and Airey (1984) suggest that the first survey on social attitudes in the UK came from the 1983 British Social Attitudes Survey. It was launched to collect attitudes on social, economic, political and moral issues including race and immigration, in the UK. From this report Airey (1984) found that there was a considerable amount of opposition in the UK in the 1980s towards ethnic minorities and race differences, with 60% of participants wanting less Asian and Black settlers, 90% believed there was racial discrimination in Britain against these two categories. Surprisingly 40% of people described themselves as being intolerant towards ethnic minorities. Young (1992) found that the 1994 British Social Attitudes Survey produced similar results. For example 60% of respondents still wanted less Asian and Black immigration throughout the 1990s.This is supported by results found in the 2011 British Social Attitudes Survey, 75% of respondents wanted a reduction in immigration overall and 51% wanting a large reduction in immigration (Park et el, 2012, p26). However, Crawley (2005) states that surveys such as this, often assume that the public have some level of knowledge about the issue. When in fact misleading questions may ill inform the public and therefore disfigure their attitudes on asylum seekers and refugee issues. The amplification of the interest in immigration and asylum may reflect the actual increase in the number of immigrants entering the UK. As the net flow of migrants into Britain over the last 15 years being the largest in British history, (Park et al, 2012, p26) but the increase in media coverage is hugely disproportionate to the numbers of immigrants coming into the country.

Public attitudes towards asylum seekers and refugees are a reflection of negative and hostile media reporting of migration issues, especially when those media sources are mainstream television broadcasters. Prime examples of how the media "represents" public attitudes is the 2001, Channel 4 programme named "Bloody Foreigners". The Andrew Smith production investigated British attitudes towards asylum seekers and Immigrants living and working in the UK. Hardcashproductions.com (n.d) summarises the production as, an exposé of the culture of how asylum seekers are physically and verbally abused on a daily basis due to pretence of xenophobia. Programmes such as this reflect and reinforce the hostility and attitudes of the British public toward asylum seekers and immigrants. By broadcasting such programmes the media is not only displaying existing negativities of public attitudes, it also encourages other members of the public to obtain these views which are becoming ever increasingly antagonistic.

Public attitudes are often negative and hostile towards asylum seekers, due to the little amount of research that has been done to inform the public about how the complex asylum system works, and how issues surrounding asylum and immigration receive no compassion or sympathy. Reputable broadcasters such as the BBC try to report on the facts to try and make the public aware of what happens in the Asylum process and how Asylum Seekers and immigrants feel and are treated. This is particularly shown on the BBCs Asylum day in July 2003. The BBC ran several programmes including "face the nation". On this programme Beverley Hughes, the minister for asylum and immigration at the time, faced the nation to debate some of the issues raised on the day (BBC News Online, 2003a). This programme brought out some very conflicting opinions from the public on the issues of Asylum and immigration. One such opinion is "I am appalled by the way that some sections of our press demonise asylum seekers when they themselves have not suffered the terrible hardships that these people have gone through." (Haworth, 2003). An extreme conflicting argument was expressed by Colemen (2003) "How dare you allow these people in to our country? How dare you let them exploit our failing NHS? How dare you allow them to exploit our benefits system?". These two conflicting opinions show the difficulty and complexity of the public in understanding a complex issue. "You the judge" was another programme broadcasted. This depicted an interactive programme where audiences stepped into the roles of immigration officials to discuss real life immigration cases. However, it was argued by the immigration officer Minister Beverly Hughes that this programme turned the issue of asylum into a "gameshow" (BBC News Online, 2003b), making the asylum process more of a way to entice audiences rather than actually trying to educate the public of how complex the process can be. The most controversial programme aired on the day, was a panorama special "The Asylum game". Where reporters posed as immigrants to see what happens as they pass through the complicated asylum process. The report details the reasons why there are so many people seek asylum in the UK and how and why the UK system is flawed and cannot cope with them (BBC news online, 2003c). The home secretary at the time of this broadcast, David Blunkett, accused the panorama programme as uncritically using claims from the "right-ring anti-immigration pressure group, Migration Watch" (BBC news online, 2003d). This suggests the BBC didn't take into account the reasons behind the complexities considering why things appeared to be flawed and just reported on figures.

News papers and online news sources can also be a reflection of negative and hostile public attitudes. One such online source is the BBC. The BBC is known for displaying the accurate facts on certain issues in a way that attracts the attention of the reader. The headlines expressed, regard immigration as a real world issue, rather than influencing the public to create false perceptions around immigration issues. Headlines such as "Romania Rejects British 'Scrounger' Stereotype" (BBC News, Morris, 2013) and "Boston Protest Held over Immigration Levels" (BBC News, 2012), do not use emotive language to draw the reader in. They simply state what has happened and then go on to further report the incidents in more detail within the article. In a further article "Asylum seeker 'Assaulted on Plane' During Deportation" (BBC News, Eckleford, 2013), an account of the injuries through an interview with the victim is reported, but no conclusions about what happened and why are stated. It simply reports that several agencies were being involved and investigating the incident.

Other liberal newspaper sources e.g. The Guardian express a balanced stance on issues of asylum seekers and refugees, in order to present their audience with the "facts". The Guardian tends to report on the politics side of immigration, issues that are causing government concern leading to policy changes. Headlines such as "David Cameron: Justice for all - unless you're an immigrant" (Jowit, 2013a) draws the attention of the reader, and in the article goes onto say that legal support and aid will be axed from April 2013 and a revision of other systems, housing, health and benefit will stop Britain being a "Soft touch" when it comes to immigration issues. This could be seen as a purely political move in order to keep voters happy, as the media have always implied that Britain is too soft when it comes to immigration issues. This is an example of where the media can not only influence public attitudes but can influence policy making at state level too. Negative and hostile media and public attitudes towards particular ethnic groups are not reflected by all members of the general public. "The UK's approach to Bulgarian and Romanian immigration makes me sick with shame" (Hanson, 2013) is one example of a recent headline that displays opposite views to migration issues. There have always been conflicting views on sensitive issues regarding asylum seekers and refugees. Opinions reflected in articles may then encourage and influence the general public attitudes towards these immigrants in a harmful and aggressive way. "Immigrants are too often taking advantage of UK public services, says Cameron" (Jowit, 2013b), this headline suggests that the government are hostile towards migrants which could filter down through the media causing the public to hold the same views as the government, and therefore view immigration in the same negative light. Although many articles express the disappointment towards the government and the UK public on wider immigration issues, they can also be tied towards issues on asylum seekers and refugees, as they are often confused to be economic migrants. Buchanan et al (2003) found that the most conspicuous features of the media coverage of the asylum issue is the confusion generated by the inaccurate use of language, the media often confuses immigrants and asylum seekers within the same article, leading to the public also holding confused views. This is because the British population do not see the reasons behind the people coming into the UK seeing them as just another statistic. They do not give asylum seekers a voice and therefore they are all targeted and branded the same by the "mean, tight-ward, mendacious, xenophobic and bad mannered society we have" (Hanson, 2013).

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The media demonstrates, reinforces and maybe even influences the negativities surrounding the immigration and asylum debate in Britain. Certain types of published media are staggeringly hypocritical on sensitive issues such as immigration and asylum, in order to influence public attitudes, for example tabloid newspapers such as, The Sun. Headlines such as "Swan Bake" (The Sun 2011) and "Now their nicking fish" (Diggines, 2007) accuse asylum seekers as being "gangs" "plundering and snaring" creatures from rivers to "slaughter and eat" (Diggens, 2007; The Sun, 2011). This negative and hostile media report, of what turned out to be a made up story of an innocent event, caused public outrage, creating an ever increasing antagonistic view by the public towards asylum seekers and refugees. This is supported by Mollard (2001) who found that most of the 253 news items she examined were negative in nature and had been partially based on false assumptions about asylum seekers which sustained a high level of hostility. Medic (2004) investigated the claim by The Sun and found that the police could not confirm any arrests, charges or cautions over the event and an unfaithful transcript of an interviewee's words was used. In addition, it could not be confirmed that an incident described by The Sun ever happened. This "story" influenced the general public to believe that asylum seekers are "selfish cruel animal killers" that have no respect for "English culture and monarchy heritage". Asylum seekers are characterised as being "criminals" and are entrapped by the criminal justice system of a host country resulting in a system that is punitive rather than protective (Amnesty International, 1999). However, they are not criminals but are treated as such being imprisoned "you cannot be trusted to live freely because you are a cheat" (Kundnani, 2001, P45). They are not seen as people who need help and refuge they are seen and treated as people who are a threat to host countries. A statement in The Sun's article "Taken to the Cleaners" reported by Lister (2007), "Most of us are hard-working taxpayers yet these people live in luxury compared to us. I wish I could afford to go to a gym and have a personal laundry service and cleaner" suggests that confusion in the general public between immigrants, asylum seekers and refugees is reflected and reinforced in the media and classing them all as cheats, money grabbers and illegal's. Rather than finding out about their personnel circumstances in the countries of origin. Buchanan et al (2003) also found that news articles regarding asylum issues often fail to provide a context for the articles by not effectively explaining the background issues and reasons for their flight.

Refugees and asylum seekers face extreme difficulties, not just in the uncertainties about their future in a country, but when they arrive and live in host countries. Race and racism can become a big issue in the lives of these people. The policies on immigration can be seen as quite racist by large groups of people and therefore public attitudes towards asylum seekers and refugees are a reflection of negative and hostile media reporting of migration issues. Racism is reproduced by the mass media giving it a broad public exposure (Smitherson-Donaldson, 1988). It is a big issue faced by asylum seekers and refugees and gets a huge amount of media attention. Between January 2010 and March 2013, 2460 racism articles were published by the more conservative Daily Mail, it must be said that not all of these articles are based directly on asylum seekers and refugees, but it goes to show the importance of a contemporary issue and the influence the media can hold over publishing such articles. Buchanan's (2003) study looked at how the story of Sangatte became central to the immigration and asylum debate in the media. It showed that the media reported on the negative attributes to rising numbers of asylum seekers and the ways, in which they arrived in Britain, allegations were made against the loss of control over UK borders and the treatment of refugees in comparison to British citizens. This is seen in further issues expressed in the Daily Mail, in particular is the reporting of so many headline figures about refugees and asylum seekers. "Up to 80,000 bogus asylum seekers granted 'amnesty'" Slack (2006), "Migration IS killing off jobs: 160,000 Britons have missed out on employment because work was taken by foreigners" (Slack, 2012) "Enough illegal migrants to fill three cities the size of Newcastle: Home Office reports that 863,000 are living in the UK". These three headlines suggest that the amount of migration of asylum seekers and refugees is staggeringly high, which will influence and may already reflect the public's perceptions of a large amount of immigration into the UK. However when these numbers are put into context by more reliable sources such as the UNHCR (2001-2013c) who state that in 2011 the UK was the eighth largest recipient of asylum seekers with 25,455 considerably behind that of the USA who receive USA 76,000 and Africa where one tenth of asylum seekers go.

In conclusion, the main aim of the media is to sell papers in order to generate profits. Therefore, it comes to no surprise that headlines and stories are exaggerated, falsified and even made up in order to attract the reader to buy more copies of the particular newspaper. Controversies about their articles will always be present as conservative and liberal political views will always be conflicting. Public attitudes towards asylum seekers and refugees are reflected, enhanced and even produced by negative and hostile media reporting of migration issues, due to the powerful nature of media devices. A lack of education, about the facts of asylum and immigration, of the general public cause media reports to become huge societal problems and issues, which, in turn, can lead to the "backing up" of racist views that have always been held in society. However, this lack of education stems from the media twisting the facts and not distinguishing between different types of migration in their articles, leading to a view that all migration is bad. Therefore, a vicious circle is created and public attitudes towards such issues are warped and twisted to reflect those of the media.

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