Despite headlines like ‘Asylum Sponger is Convicted Thief’, those seeking asylum are statistically more likely to be victims of crime than its perpetrators.
In late 2003, the Press Complaints Commission (PCC) declared the phrase ‘illegal asylum seekers’ inherently inaccurate. However, the same segments of the press still bray over ‘soft-touch Britain’. Only the words have changed.
In the six months before the guidelines were issued on October 20, ‘illegal asylum seekers’ appeared in 44 articles in British papers. Since the PCC guidelines were issued, several newspapers ignored them. Just over a week later, The Sun put it in quotes in a politician’s speech; The Scotsman prefers to paraphrase using the term. The Sunday Mirror’s Carole Malone (irresponsibly) ducks the issue by enclosing the word in brackets in her article of January 11, which pits ‘the (illegal) asylum-seeker, the politically correct and minority groups’ against the ‘Decent British people…hard-working masses [who] are being bullied and criminalised’. Even The Guardian slipped up, although it apologised through its readers’ editor.
In addition, many papers are using alternative epithets, taking a leaf out of The Daily Express, which headlines with creative alternatives: ‘Victory at Last over Bogus Refugees; Asylum Spongers to Lose Benefits.’ The Daily Mail got round the PCC by calling asylum seekers without papers ‘Passport Cheats.’ References to ‘beggars’, ‘shirkers’ and ‘criminals’ also abound.
In the six months before the guidelines were issued, there were 156 references to ‘bogus’ asylum seekers in the British press. There have been nearly as many in half the time – in the three months since the PCC ruled out ‘illegal’. 24 Of the 117 references came from The Daily Express alone. After a fatal car crash, the paper headlined with ‘Gay Migrant in 90mph Drive: Illegal on Death Crash Rap’ on January 10. Nana Kemajou had no license or insurance, but although ‘unlicensed and uninsured’ were more relevant, it is clearly not as catchy as ‘gay migrant’.
Even The Daily Telegraph is getting in on the act. A country diary by Alexander Chancellor, published after the guidelines, began ‘My garden is… a haven for feathered asylum seekers from the great sporting estates of the county. They are certainly not ‘bogus’ asylum seekers, for they have every reason to expect to be murdered in the homelands from which they have fled.’ The implication is that human asylum seekers have less to fear than British pheasants.
Officially, the Dover police don’t have a position on anti-asylum seeker articles, but one officer told The Guardian, ‘Every time the press attacks asylum seekers, it doesn’t help on the ground. As soon as it appears in the press, feelings begin to rise, you can sense it.’ The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees claimed the UK press had given ‘prominence to outlandish and scaremongering claims from fringe groups and individuals’. It also said there had been an ‘unwarranted association of asylum seekers with issues such as crime and disease’. Despite News of the World headlines like ‘Asylum Sponger is Convicted Thief’, those seeking asylum are statistically more likely to be victims of crime than perpetrators.
Pursuing complaints over even the most ludicrous stories is an uphill struggle. A front-page story published by The Star, ‘Asylum Seekers Eat our Donkeys’, quotes an unnamed police insider saying ‘Immigrants…like eating donkey,’ and reports the animal is a Somalian delicacy. An investigation is underway regarding accuracy after a reader pointed out that donkey meat is forbidden in Somalia under Islamic law. However, the PCC rejected six protests regarding bias, saying the actual allegation was presented as comment. The Commission also said that clause 13 of the code of practice, which defines discrimination, only exists to protect individuals, and not groups.
Legislation is currently restricted to combating race hatred. At the Labour Party Conference, David Blunkett promised to extend this to cover religious hatred. However, the variety of races and religions represented by asylum seekers mean that it will be equally tough to prosecute under this new law. So, while the press would never dare to run ‘Jews Eat our Donkeys’ or ‘Time to Crackdown on Catholic Scroungers’, it looks like open season on asylum seekers for a long time to come.