Language Matters: Doubling Down on Anti-immigrant Rhetoric
The government’s contentious “Go Home” van is off the streets for now, but Immigration Minister Mark Harper still saw fit to double down on his support for the initiative in a parliamentary debate on Wednesday after Pete Wishart SNP asked him to guarantee that “he will not bring these xenophobic “go home” hate vans to Scotland” – along with a request to “remove the unwanted, disgraceful “go home” materials from the UKBA office in Glasgow.”
Citing favourable public opinion, Mr Harper stated that “Asking people who have no right to be in the UK—who are here unlawfully, taking the mickey out of everyone else—to go home, as they should do, rather than forcing the taxpayer to spend up to £15,000 on arresting, detaining and enforcing their removal, is a very sensible thing to do, and I am not going to apologise for it.”
The government’s belief in the power of advertising aside (I assume a “Pay your Way” van for tax avoiders will be driving through the City next), it’s disingenuous for the government to insist that an inflammatory message targeted at one group of migrants doesn’t affect or offend others – language matters. The phrase “illegal migrant” came up repeatedly in Thursday’s debate, while Tory MP John Redwood referred to “illegals” at one point. A recent study of British newspapers by the Migration Observatory found that “illegal” is the most common term used alongside word immigrant. A human being can’t be inherently illegal, even though they can perform illegal activities. Associated Press Executive Editor Kathleen Carroll put it best when updating the AP Style Book: “’illegal’ should describe only an action, such as living in or immigrating to a country illegally.”
The same study found that “failed” is most likely to appear alongside asylum seeker, which is reductive; the Refugee Council’s Tell it Like It Is campaign points out that with 70% of asylum claims refused, many people with a real fear of persecution are let down by the system. The UNHCR is unequivocal: “There is no such thing as a bogus asylum seeker or an illegal asylum seeker. Everybody has a right to seek asylum in another country. People who don’t qualify for protection as refugees will not receive refugee status and may be deported, but just because someone doesn’t receive refugee status doesn’t mean they are a bogus asylum seeker.”
There’s also more to the story when it comes to public opinion. Although Mark Harper was encouraged by a Yougov poll showing increased public support for the “Go Home” van, research by Action Against Racism and Xenophobia found that most people found the campaign “unacceptable.” Meanwhile, Lord Ashcroft’s latest poll on immigration found that six in ten people think that immigration has produced more disadvantages than advantages for the UK. Confused? The truth is that most people’s views on immigration are nuanced – and more complex than politicians give them credit for. Lord Ashcroft’s poll also revealed that the majority of people hold different views on immigration issues depending on what question they’re asked. The clusters at the extreme ends of the spectrum – staunchly pro or against immigration – are actually in the minority.
Human rights organisations have warned that government endorsement of inflammatory rhetoric is damaging to community cohesion. During Wednesday’s debate Andy Sawford MP went further, suggesting that the defacing of a mosque in Northamptonshire with the phrase “Go Home” occurred after the van had been through the area. That hasn’t been proven, but there is no doubt that the government’s rhetoric stokes public anxiety about immigration.
You wouldn’t know it from listening to Mark Harper, but the government has in fact pledged to consult with local authorities and community groups before launching a campaign like the “Go Home” van in future following the threat of legal action. When it comes to changing the language used in politics and the media about migrants though, we still have a long way to go before the portrayal of migrants is fair and recognises the human dignity of all, regardless of their official immigration status.
Kiri Kankhwende is a Malawian writer living in London with an eye on Southern Africa. She has a background in human rights campaigning and is interested in immigration, politics and theatre. Can be found blogging at Madomasi and tweeting @madomasi
- AARX Press Release: Survey shows government ‘Go Home’ message is ‘unacceptable’
- MP blames ‘go home illegal immigrant’ advertising vans for racist attack on mosque (standard.co.uk)
- Letters: Government reforms threaten migrants and asylum-seekers (theguardian.com)
- ‘Go home’ campaign creating climate of fear, say rights groups (theguardian.com)
- We need to change the very language we use to talk about immigrants (newstatesman.com)
- Australian opposition plans to relegate asylum seekers to military, keep numbers secret (craighill.net)