The Arrivers: Why Language Matters in Migration Policy

2 December 2020: Rethinking Security: The Arrivers: Why Language Matters in Migration Policy

Catherine Henderson argues that how we talk and write about migrants determines how we and others think about them and their place in our society. Welcoming migrants as ‘arrivers’ matters as much as recognising the reasons they had to leave other countries.

A few weeks ago a series of leaks from the Home Office conjured up a dystopian world where people seeking asylum in the UK might be kept on old ferries or oil rigs or sent to Ascension Island in the South Atlantic. The boats in which they attempt to cross the Channel might be pushed back to France by wave machines or trapped in giant nets.

For many people living in the ‘hostile environment’ of Britain’s asylum system, the implementation of these ‘ideas’, as the Home Office described them, would be a logical extension of the way things already are. Theirs is the largely invisible world of indefinite detention, ‘no recourse to public funds’ and families driven to destitution by having to pay exorbitant fees to the Home Office every two and a half years for the renewal of their Discretionary Leave to Remain.

All this reminds me of a line from William Blake’s poem ‘Holy Thursday’: ‘And their ways are fill’d with thorns’. It is a poem about the coldness of a system that is supposed to support people in need, the absence of kindness. We know from the thousands of examples of kindness shown daily to refugees that this is not representative of public attitudes. Yet the official response to people seeking safety here seems to be characterised by a lack of imagination and compassion.

The twisted vocabulary of migration

There are no safe or legal routes for people to exercise their right under international law to apply for asylum in the UK so they have to find other ways of getting here, often paying large sums of money to smugglers to do so. As a result they are frequently (and incorrectly) labelled ‘illegal migrants’, a term many in the media are happy to use interchangeably with ‘asylum seekers’. The vocabulary of migration is full of unexamined assumptions, for example being an ‘economic migrant’ is frowned upon, although there is no problem with being an ‘ex-pat’ from the UK. The use of words from the criminal justice system such as ‘deportation’ to describe the enforced removal of refused asylum seekers reinforces the idea that coming here is a criminal offence.

Our brains use the language available to us to build stories that make sense of the world, so the words used in the media and by our politicians help shape the way we see things. A 2016 survey of European media by the UNHCR found that British tabloids ‘campaigned aggressively against refugees and migrants’ and concluded that the media are ‘actively constructing our understanding and perception’. But it is not just the tabloids. Journalists in mainstream media ask questions like ‘What is the Government doing to secure our borders?’ as if Nigel Farage’s depiction of a ‘migrant invasion’ were now accepted fact.

It is ironic that those who are fleeing countries made unstable by our own foreign policies are depicted as a ‘threat to our security’. Their security is seen as somehow less important than ours. This comes across starkly in something that Kate Allen, Director of Amnesty International UK, said in April 2015, when Britain was arguing for the withdrawal of search and rescue vessels in the Mediterranean: ‘The equivalent of five passenger planes full of people have drowned last week alone… If they had been holiday makers instead of migrants, imagine the response.’

Narrative in search of enemies

Part of the problem here is thinking of numbers rather than people, and the difficulty we have empathising with large groups. But there is undeniably a sense of ‘migrants’ – the label helps to distance them – being seen as ‘other’, and an element of racism that is part of this. Demonising migrants is nothing new: ever since the walls went up around our first cities, and elites began accumulating wealth and power, migrants – unsettled people – have been depicted as a ‘threat to our way of life’ and even as a source of contamination or infection. (In keeping with this tradition, my local councillor persists in referring to Covid-19 as the Chinese ’flu.) It is a story as old as civilisation.

As inequality grows more marked and we grow increasingly fearful – of becoming ill, of losing our homes or our jobs – populist politicians exploit our fear and insecurity. They offer us someone to blame for our distress and they distract us with frightening evocations of a ‘migrant invasion’. Populists are gifted spinners of tales who tap into national mythology. The use of words like ‘waves’ and ‘hordes’ conjures up our deepest fears of invasion, chaos and loss of control.

This kind of language rekindles stories of a once-great nation, threats to our civilisation, heroes who return to save their people in a time of need and, most insidiously of all, racial purity. Heather Grabbe, Director of the Open Society European Policy Institute in Brussels, describes populism as ‘not so much an ideology as a narrative in search of an enemy’. The irresponsible use of language opens up a dark box of tales and lets them loose on the world.

Those who arrive

The word ‘refugee’ comes from the French réfugié, a word first used of the Protestant Huguenots who sought asylum in England and Ireland in the 17th century. British politicians like to refer to this when conjuring up a ‘proud history of offering sanctuary to those fleeing persecution’. The writer Marina Warner, who has held workshops enabling refugees to tell their own stories, suggests we consider using another French word, arrivants – those who arrive. This is a forward-looking word: to me it speaks of welcome and fresh beginnings. Language is constantly renewing itself, and words take on different hues according to how we use them.

If we want to change the way people seeking sanctuary are perceived, we need to change the language we use first. The calculated use of dehumanising and alarmist language is what underpins an increasingly cruel asylum system. The government is right: we do need to fix our ‘fundamentally broken asylum system’.  Just in a different way to the one they envisage.


The views and opinions expressed in posts on the Rethinking Security blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the position of the network and its broader membership.


Image CreditCatherine Henderson.

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