The role of race in political and/or media discourses on the migrant crisis.
Blog by Asma Azam
The term migrant is considered a problematic one, particularly in the context of increased concern about Islam and ‘Others’, the rise of right-wing political parties in Europe and raised border controls. According to the definition presented by the International Organisation for Migration, a migrant is:
“Any person who is moving or has moved across an international border or within a state away from his/her habitual place of residence, regardless of (1) the person’s legal status; (2) whether the movement is voluntary or involuntary; (3) what the causes of the movement are; or (4) what the length of the stay is.”
Migrants are often confused with ethnic or religious minorities as well as with asylum seekers. Media discourse, in particularly populist journalism, often uses these terms indiscriminately. Given the variety of definitions and usage, migrant is not a term that could be used straight away in public debates. It is a broader term and to understand how it works, the role of race in representations of migrants needs to be closely examined.
Race is in itself a rather slippery concept. There is no such thing as race, however, we still use the term to explore how the concept shapes social realities. Although race is not spoken about directly within media and political debates for quite some time, racial inequality nevertheless still persists. It was originally created to categorise populations, their biological differences such as skin colour and other physical characteristics. The consensus in sociology is that race is socially constructed. There is no reason to think that people of different ethnicity, religions or nationality are superior or inferior. Societies still encourage this idea that differences are innate; they are something we cannot change. We can see that, for example, in how certain stereotypes are produced, the way in which racialised bodies, including migrants bodies, are criminalised even though there is no evidence to support it.
Moving away from biological characteristics, people are more likely to be discriminated against on grounds of culture. White people are in the most powerful and dominant group. Physical appearance does remain significant as cultural differences are assumed to be depending on physical appearances. We start to associate criminalisation and dehumanisation with the people we repeatedly see portrayed as inferiors in media discourse. So there is a shift from biological differences to cultural differences. The term migrants is increasingly being understood in very different ways. It cannot simply be defined anymore as migrants and non migrants. There are certain types of migrants that are considered problematic. Racism is applied to a specific group of migrants. Erel et al (2016) argue in Understanding the contemporary race–migration nexus: “Understanding the contemporary ways in which race and racism relate to migration has become urgent for scholars and anti-racist activists” (Erel et al, 2016:1340).
There are different ways of framing people. Different types of migrants are presented as posing different kinds of threats. A clear example of that is Donald Trump’s immigration bill, which is enforced only against Muslim countries. Muslim migrants are more likely to be represented within politics and media as being a threat to national security and social cohesion. Eastern European migrants, most of them EU citizens who simply exercise their right of free movement, are more likely to be framed as parasites stealing our jobs. However, there is a long history in Europe across different countries of preferences for white and wealthy migrants. It is not new that immigration is racialised, either. Aranda and Vaquera (2015) talk about different measures to regulate the immigration population as criminalize migrants and as a consequence undocumented migrants have become associated with criminality and treated very much as criminals. They argue that “[…]findings indicate that although legal discourse regarding immigration enforcement theoretically purports colorblindness, racial practices such as profiling subject immigrants to arrest, detention and deportation and, in effect, criminalize them” (Aranda and Vaquera 2015: 87).
The UK also has a long history of applying scales of desirability regarding potential migrants and they again refer to the skill levels migration types and countries of origins. They have also targeted non-white countries by increasing types of restrictions for people from non-white countries. This started from the 1960s onwards. The UK’s membership in the British Common Wealth was accompanied by cruel anti-colour legislation that specifically aimed at tightening the immigration rules for people coming from non-white commonwealth countries. In Germany too, migrant guest workers tend to be largely non-white population and it is difficult to get residency rights or citizenship. Asylums seekers are seen as least desirable. Negative construction of asylum seekers is so persuasive and they are talked about as kind of threat but particularly through the language of crisis. Mulvey (2010) argued that government policies act to legitimise the hostility toward migrants and create policy momentum, which then leads to increased restrictions on migrants. They are perceived as an unwanted group, a burden on society. The term of fraud or bogus asylum seekers became a prefix from 2000 onwards in Tony Blair’s government. There is a huge political and media emphasis on asylum seekers and the crisis language has been used for decades. That led to this idea of perpetual crisis in public perception. The language of crisis emphasised numbers to create a perception of impending disasters, and because the crisis is presented to us as a crisis of numbers, cutting the numbers is presented as the best solution.
The migrant crisis is also portrayed as a crisis of sovereignty, therefore, border controls were upped and new immigration legislation was brought in. There is also an increase in detentions and deportations. The UK’s immigration detention facilities are amongst the largest in Europe as in the past years between 2000 to 3500 migrants are detained and given time. Asylum rights are becoming limited in numerous ways. Migrants are conceptualised as criminals and they are constructed as a threat to the nation state. Migration is linked to terrorism, therefore hate crime and racism have increased by 16%. There is an anxiety about the loss of culture as the increased number of migrants has diluted the culture and is somehow corrupting the country by bringing in their values and culture. Migrants are seen as a threat to the welfare and work regime in the UK. To solve these issues, new legalisation was introduced, designed to stop asylum seekers from paid employment as well as English language classes were no longer been provided in England. Mulvey (2010) talks about how different policies are created to starve them out.
To conclude, the Migrant Crisis is seen through the lens of race. Although race is socially constructed according to sociologists, it has its strong contribution in representations of the migrant crisis and on how migrants are dehumanised and criminalised. Media and political discourse construct a sense of reality about the migrants issue through the use of race as the mode of representations. As discussed above, the media seem to have taken a uniform approach to portraying this crisis. Hate speech has caught the attention of the media and caused public concern. However, media and political discourses need a positive approach to cover this issue as it is a more of a humanitarian crisis. The crisis actually produces refugees, and according to UNHCR 3,740 people died in Mediterranean alone in 2016, and that is probably an underestimated number. This issue needs positive political attention. The international community can only solve this humanitarian challenge through collaboration.
Aranda & Vaquera (2015) ‘Racism, the Immigration Enforcement Regime, and the Implications for Racial Inequality in the Lives of Undocumented Young Adults’, Sociology of Race and Ethnicity, Vol. 1(1), pp. 87 –104
Erel et al. (2016) ‘Understanding the Contemporary Race–Migration Nexus’, Ethnic and Racial Studies, vol.8, February, pp.1339-1360
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Maughan, B., 2010. Tony Blair’s asylum policies: The narratives and conceptualisations at the heart of New Labour’s restrictionism (No. 69), WORKING PAPER SERIES. University of Oxford, Refugee Studies Centre Oxford Department of International Development, Oxford.
Mulvey, G., 2010. When Policy Creates Politics: the Problematizing of Immigration and the Consequences for Refugee Integration in the UK. Journal of Refugee Studies 23, 437–462. doi:10.1093/jrs/feq045
Refugees, U.N.H.C. for, n.d. Mediterranean death toll soars, 2016 is deadliest year yet. UNHCR. (accessed 5.25.17).
Travis, A., 2016. Lasting rise in hate crime after EU referendum, figures show. The Guardian. (accessed 5.25.17).