It’s official: media coverage of asylum is distorted and unfair

It’s official: media coverage of asylum is distorted and unfair

Written by: Arun Kundnani

Research commissioned by Article 19, a group that campaigns for free expression, has found that the British media’s coverage of asylum seekers and refugees is characterised by stereotyping, exaggeration and inaccurate language.

Academics at the Cardiff School of Journalism spent two years monitoring asylum coverage in newspapers and on television, interviewing reporters and editors on national newspapers and interviewing asylum seekers and refugees. Coverage of the issue during a 12-week period at the end of 2002, during which the controversy over the Sangatte centre at Calais dominated the news, was subjected to a systematic analysis.

Their findings include:

  • 51 different labels were used to describe individuals seeking refuge in Britain, including meaningless and derogatory terms such as ‘illegal refugee’ and ‘asylum cheat’. The terms ‘immigrant’ and ‘asylum seeker’ are used as synonyms rather than as distinct terms to accurately convey the status and situation of individuals.
  • The asylum debate focuses predominantly on the numbers coming to claim asylum. But the numbers presented in print are frequently unsourced, exaggerated or inadequately explained.
  • Imagery used is dominated by the stereotype of the ‘threatening young male’. Stock images of groups of men trying to break into Britain are used repeatedly. The experience of refugee women is marginalised.
  • News on asylum relies heavily on politicians, official figures and the police as sources of information and explanation. Individual asylum seekers and refugees are rarely quoted themselves, particularly on discussion of policy.
  • Asylum seekers and refugees themselves feel alienated, ashamed and sometimes threatened as a result of the overwhelmingly negative media coverage of asylum. Many blame the media for the abuse and aggression they have faced.

The research team found that in the 12-week period studied in depth, there were fourteen front page articles on asylum, more than one per week. The majority of these front pages were in the Daily Mail and the Daily Express. The tone of the language used both in headlines and the text of articles was more often that not coded as having negative connotations – for example, highlighting the asylum system as overburdened, or asylum seekers as undeserving. Out of eight-two photographs of refugees, only four showed women.

“Most of the British media were emphasising the negative side, thus they should be responsible for the hatred and racial discrimination facing the refugees.” – Eritrean refugee

Coverage was restricted to descriptions of the Sangatte centre as a dangerous ‘magnet’ for asylum seekers on their way to the UK; the closure of the centre was therefore treated as the resolution of a problem for Britain. However, there was barely any exploration of the bigger picture of which Sangatte was a part. How did the story of those attempting to enter Britain from Sangatte fit into the wider context of asylum applications in Europe? Why had those in Sangatte, mostly Afghans and Iraqis, originally left their homelands? Were there positive aspects to their arrival in Britain, such as the skills they might have and the economic contribution they could make to Britain?

Out of 182 articles on asylum studied by the research, asylum seekers and refugees themselves were quoted in just thirty-four. Only one article quoted the views of a refugee community organisation. Where asylum seekers and refugees were directly quoted, there was no attempt by journalists to explore the reasons why they had fled their homes and come to Britain.

Numbers game

The research found regular speculation on statistics, particularly the numbers of asylum seekers coming to Britain. In December 2002, newspaper predictions of the number of asylum applicants in 2002 were between 116,000 and 130,000. These figures were presented as statements of fact, when in fact the real number was then unknown. The number turned out to be 85,000 (103,000 including dependants). The Daily Mail is singled out for criticism in the research report for its habit of shocking readers with apparently authoritative statistics, which are actually from unnamed sources.

The report concludes that a legitimate debate has thus been distorted by media willing to cynically exploit imagined statistics, often drawn from the anti-immigration think tank Migration Watch, in order ‘to support particular editorial lines at the cost of providing information to the public’. While the media has a role to act as a watchdog on the Home Office’s statistics, ‘scepticism about the government’s figures on the part of journalists is rarely paralleled by scepticism about Migration Watch’s counter-figures’.


The report makes the following recommendations to improve the coverage of asylum in the British media:

  • Politicians and government officials should take the lead in using accurate terminology when speaking about asylum and immigration policy and in setting a tone for the debate which reflects the fact that on average every year an estimated 40-50% of those who apply for asylum in Britain are judged to have legitimate grounds for remaining in the UK, either as Convention status refugees or as persons in need of humanitarian protection.
  • Reporters, sub-editors and editors should be aware of the correct use of terminology in the asylum and immigration debate. They should avoid inventing labels which are essentially meaningless, and also distinguish between economic migrants and refugees.
  • Refugee organisations should develop a glossary of correct legal definitions with clear explanations of their meaning and the context in which they should be used.
  • The Press Complaints Commission in consultation with refugee organisations should develop soft guidelines on news reporting on asylum and immigration issues. The use of threatening and pejorative language to describe asylum seekers/refugees should be addressed in these guidelines.
  • The media should take care to source all statistics and explain the origin of numbers which are quoted without a verifiable source.
  • The media should place reportage of numbers of refugees and asylum seekers in context, both historical and in relation to the arrival and recognition rates of asylum seekers and refugees in other countries.
  • The Home Office, in consultation with refugee organisations, should review the publication and presentation of statistics on asylum and immigration. They should address both the information gaps which are highlighted in this report and consider ways in which statistics can be made clearer by a more detailed and contextual accompanying analysis.
  • The media should seek to portray asylum seekers and refugees in less stereotypical ways, in particular by including more images of women and children in their reports.
  • Acknowledging the challenges they face, refugee organisations should explore ways in which they can offer the media alternative and more representative images.
  • Refugees and asylum seekers should be asked for their opinion on policy issues and given the opportunity to make a greater contribution to the debate. This requires journalists to seek them out as sources on a broader range of issues and for refugee organisations to be (even more) prepared to facilitate exchange between the media and refugees.
  • The media should find opportunities to present refugees as individuals whose stories are worth telling, rather than merely examples of a generic ‘problem’.
  • Refugee organisations and refugee community organisations should join forces to launch a national branded campaign to counter the overwhelmingly negative image of asylum seekers and refugees in the public debate.
  • The media should consider the benefits of recruiting exiled journalists who in addition to their professional experience as journalists, could provide specific insight into issues relating to the countries and circumstances from which they have fled. This requires proactive action by the media to create opportunities for refugee journalists and for the media to use the networks and connections with refugees that can be provided by the NGO sector.

Related links

Download the report in full from Article 19.

Freedom to hate? – IRR comment

The Institute of Race Relations is precluded from expressing a corporate view: any opinions expressed are therefore those of the authors.

2 thoughts on “It’s official: media coverage of asylum is distorted and unfair

  1. Just thought I’d let you know that in the city of Hull, Humberside Police have had to set up 2 new police stations in the areas where asylum seekers are housed and congregate. What does this tell you?

  2. Just thought I’d let you know that in the city of Hull, Humberside Police have had to set up 2 new police stations in the areas where asylum seekers are housed and congregate. What does this tell you?

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