Race and the ‘refugee crisis’.

by | Jun 9, 2017 | Migration | 0 comments

by Jasmine Givnan

Political rhetoric and media discourse today is saturated with panic over the apparent ‘refugee crisis’ which is becoming more globalized and diversified in contemporary society, as the crisis is no longer regionally contained ‘south-south’ (Zetter, 2007). However, I personally despise the use of this discourse, and have never really seen refugees as an issue, let alone a crisis, so I started to research the meanings and processes behind such rhetoric, and sadly began to realise how much race has to do with it. Throughout this post I will be discussing how the media and political discourse along with policy on refugees incorporate many covert yet racialized initiatives.

I thought I’d share with you a few of the results I found from searching ‘Refugees’ on Google Images, I noticed that the pictures mainly showed ‘non-white’ refugees, particularly Muslim’s and Middle Eastern people (see pictures below), themes which came up during my research endlessly. I thought this was interesting as it initially indicated to me that mainstream media does present a bias.

I found Gale’s (2004) article on ‘The Refugee Crisis and Fear, populist politics and media discourse’ particularly interesting as it highlighted some shocking policy and media initiatives in Australia which had arguably racial intentions. During this article, the concept of ‘New Racism’ was discussed which revealed that both political and media discourse throughout the Global North places emphasis on cultural difference whilst denying racism (Hall, 1992), meaning that immigrants, particularly ‘non-whites’ aren’t represented as racially inferior, rather, their cultural values are commonly represented as a threat to whiteness and Western principles. Meaning that although racism is still overtly discouraged, the public are still subject to subtle and manipulated presentation of non-white refugees, causing many people to start forming racial assumptions and seeing refugees as unwanted.

As well as the ‘politics of race’ becoming a central political issue and strategy, the media has played a huge role in the emerging new language of race and nation, contributing to this perceived crisis of countries national security being ‘under threat’. Gale analysed media representations of asylum seekers and refugees in Australian newspapers in 2011, using discourse analysis, and found three themes; ‘The Humanitarian crisis’, ‘Human rights and media discourse’ and ‘Border protection and our right as a nation’.  It’s the latter theme I wish to discuss, Gale argued that through media headlines such as ‘5000 new illegals head this way’, a construction of a binary between ‘deserving and undeserving refugees’ is created, this theme also demonstrated how border protection was closely linked with the ‘war on terror’. Gale therefore argued that the fear of terrorism has become equated with the fear of the other, creating a binary between ‘good people’ who have contributed to the country and ‘bad people’ who are the focus of the war on terror, both of which are still perceived as the other. Hall (1992, cited Gale 2004) argues that such discourse presents people of Islamic faith being on the other side of ‘impassable symbolic boundaries’ and therefore there is a racially constituted divide between the Australians and people of Arab background, regardless of their status within the country.

I found Zetter’s (2007) article ‘More labels, Fewer Refugees’ very relevant to my research. He argues that the globalisation of forced migration in the contemporary era has shaped ‘a fundamental reformulation of the refugee regime and thus the refugee label’ (page 174) meaning it’s a lot more difficult to determine who is a refugee. Forced migrants are now moving for a complex number of social/economic reasons, and such processes present an increasing challenge to northern governments to manage migration. As most of us know, there are several government policies to try and deal with migration spill overs, such as temporary protection labels, deterrence policies or offshore processing to name but a few. Zetter also discusses how minority groups are persecuted through forms of political, social and economic exclusion, he argues that this causes ‘ethnic nationalism without explicit ethnic cleansing’, a pretty shocking and devastating sentence. However, it is true, forced immigrant’s basic human rights recede, and their socio-economic inequalities grow; Mulvey (2010) discusses how government policy is largely responsible for these inequalities. He argues that the UK Government acted on the unproven assumption that the ‘right to work’ along with benefits were pull factors for illegitimate asylum claims, and therefore the right to work was removed and life on benefits was made increasingly difficult.

Another way in which migrants are racially persecuted socially is the Governments emphasis on ‘integration’ and ‘citizenship’, the Secure Borders, Safe Haven White Paper made integration an essential precondition for becoming a British citizen (Erel et al 2016), meaning that immigrants are judged on the basis of their English language abilities and knowledge on British life. Blackledge (2006, cited Erel et al, 2016) argues that ‘English language dominance is conflated with a racialized white dominance…prevent the participation in society or some linguistic minorities can be nothing other than discriminatory’. As I found in many articles this notion of essential assimilation was generally accepted amongst refugees and migrants, and refugees wanted to ‘belong’ but despite the supposed Government perspective were prevented from doing so. In 2007, free language lessons for asylum seekers were abolished in England (Mulvey 2010), making it even harder to integrate into British society. The blame is consequentially put onto migrants for lack of cohesion rather than the difficulties put in place which prevent them from integration.

However, during my research, I found some arguments suggesting that race doesn’t matter in contemporary migration experiences; Erel et al (2016) discussed the ‘post-racial migrations-beyond racialization’ nexus, and that theorists in this branch believe that civic belonging rather than racialization shape migrants experiences. Goodhart (2013, cited Erel et al, 2016) believes that the problem of migration is the capacity of local communities to provide housing, healthcare, education that is required to handle the influx of people. Although I am not denying this is a valid theory, my research generally seemed to suggest that these social processes of civil belonging or welfare provisions are based on racialized initiatives.
Even more so after researching the so called ‘refugee crisis’ I am extremely sympathetic to their experiences and feel much guilt about the way my country along with many others treats them as inferior and almost ‘sub-human’. I would recommend you all to research this subject yourself, so that the next time you read a bias headline or hear someone talking in a derogative way of refugees you will have the knowledge to question them, and teach others how these cultural assumptions we have been taught to make are simply a new form of racism that has been constructed so that refugees become a scape-goat for all the problems within a country.


Gale, P. (2004). The refugee crisis and fear: Populist politics and media discourse. Journal of Sociology, 40(4), pp.321-340.
Erel, U., Murji, K. and Nahaboo, Z. (2016). Understanding the contemporary race–migration nexus. Ethnic and Racial Studies, 39(8), pp.1339-1360.
Zetter, R. (2007). More Labels, Fewer Refugees: Remaking the Refugee Label in an Era of Globalization. Journal of Refugee Studies, 20(2), pp.172-192
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(4), pp.437-462.


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