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Causes of the British Public’s Hostility to Migrants

“‘Brexit’ and the ‘migration crisis’ are just the most recent examples of migrants being presented as a threat.’” Discuss with reference to securitisation literature.

In recent years, there has been a seemingly exponential increase in the British public’s hostility towards migration. For the most part, migrants are no longer viewed in a positive light by society; rather, they are seen to pose a threat to the Western way of life. Indeed, this is borne out by a recent International Organisation for Migration (IOM) report which found that the majority of adults in every Northern European nation – bar the United Kingdom – would like to see levels of immigration increase or, at the very least, remain consistent (IOM, 2015). This is due in no small part to the development of contemporary political phenomena, such as the departure of the United Kingdom from the European Union and increasing numbers of migrant arrivals into the country. This essay will discuss the extent to which ‘Brexit’ and the ‘migration crisis’ are just the most recent examples of migrants being presented as a threat, with reference to securitisation literature. In so doing, it will adopt the following structure: firstly, the process of migration will be defined and the criteria against which we measure whether someone is a migrant will be introduced. Only then can, secondly, the idea that “‘Brexit’ and the ‘migration crisis’ are just the most recent example” be discussed in depth. To corroborate this assertion, this essay will evidence historical instances – such as the surge in ethnic minorities migrating to the UK in the post-war era, which sparked riots amid alleviated fears of job shortages for native Britons. It will then investigate the argument that migration can actually present a number of opportunities, rather than threats. This will then be contrasted with the view that they pose more threats than they present opportunities, to ensure that both sides of the argument are heard. Following on from a discussion on what these threats are, will be an examination of how these threats are portrayed, through the media for example. It will reach the conclusion that it is, indeed, correct to say that “‘Brexit’ and the ‘migration crisis’ are just the most recent examples” on the basis that there have been also been instances from the past, and “of migrants being presented as a threat’” because a right-wing British media bias is at play which has not only contributed to and escalated the social construction of migrants being presented as a threat but also perpetuated the single story of migrants.

Prior to our immersion into the migration debate, it seems logical to firstly contextualise the arguments by defining the process of migration and briefly outlining the grounds upon which someone is categorised as a migrant. According to Castles (2007), international migration is defined as “a social phenomenon that crosses national borders and affects two or more nation-states” (Castles, 2007: 351). In practical terms, therefore, it relates to the movement of people from one country to another. Although the process of migration is relatively straightforward to define, the criteria that is used to determine whether someone is classified as a migrant is somewhat less so. Bridget Anderson asserts that “…in terms of the making of migrants, the question of who is the migrant requires an examination of the vexed question of the relation between immigration controls, racism and the ideas of auchtochtony and  belonging” (Anderson, 2013: 29). Thus, it is clear that a number of factors are at play in relation to deciding who is counted as a migrant and who is not. For example, Anderson (2013) points to the length of their stay and their right to abode as just two key determinant factors. Not only are migrants, therefore, merely governed by laws but they are also constructed by them.

Now that the contextual foundations have been laid, it is possible to examine instances from the past where migrants have been presented as a threat. One such instance derives from the post-war era in 1948, when there was a surge in the numbers of migrants entering the country from the Caribbean via the Empire Windrush (BBC iWonder, n.d.). This, as it transpired, was to represent the beginning of mass immigration to Britain from the Commonwealth. Encouraged by the prospect of employment, they arrived at a time when there was thought to be a chronic labour shortage across the country. However, many Brits reacted angrily and felt a deep sense of grievance at what they considered to be foreigners coming in and stealing ‘their’ jobs. Consequently, a series of race riots ensued spanning a ten-year period, culminating in the infamous 1958 Notting Hill riots. Hence, it is clear that ‘Brexit’ and the ‘migration crisis’ are merely “just the most recent examples”, as there have been many other instances in the past of migrants being presented as a threat.

On the one hand, migration may be viewed in a positive light, as an opportunity to boost the economy.

On the other hand, one of the main reasons why migrants are being presented as a threat is due to their assimilation with criminality and terrorism. More often than not, migrants are talked about in terms of being illegal, meaning they have entered a country without having met the criteria aforementioned.

Although this essay has already explored what the actual threats are that migrants are deemed to pose, it has yet to touch upon an important point: how these threats are portrayed and reinforced, through the media for example.

As sociologists, it is always necessary to question, rather than to simply take for granted, the origins of so-called ‘common sense assumptions’ such as migrants being presented as a threat. One of the most common ways in which migrants are being presented as a threat is through the media’s portrayal of them. Qualitative analysis of newspaper articles, such as those published at the height of the ‘migration crisis,’ undoubtedly evidences the part they have played in contributing to the social construction (Berger & Luckmann, 1966) of migrants being presented as a threat. It vividly illustrates there is a distinct lack of impartiality in the British press’ reporting of the migrant crisis, a claim that is further substantiated by The Conversation’s article entitled “UK press is the most aggressive in reporting on Europe’s ‘migrant’ crisis” (The Conversation, 2016). Whereas a minority of articles, those coming from a left-wing perspective, have tended to use more subtle, sympathetic words such as “flows” (Weiwei, 2018) which implies a steady, continuous stream of people, the rhetoric adopted by the vast majority of articles, those of a right-wing persuasion, was rather more blunt, forthright, and inflammatory in nature. The frequency with which derogatory descriptive terms, such as “influxes” (Revesz, 2017), “swarms” and “plagues” appeared in right-wing articles is indicative of this. Taken individually, the label “swarm” (Hopkins, 2015) is synonymous with flocks, herds, and packs in a not too dissimilar manner to the way in which we often hear animals described – a flock of geese, a herd of sheep, for example. Similarly, the word “plague” (Hopkins, 2015) has connotations of an infestation and an epidemic. By describing them in such terms, the media are arguably conveying a sense of their superiority, as it were, a sense of supremacy and looking down on migrants as mere objects or things, reflecting a theme of Western superiority. Furthermore, if we were to convert the practice and link it back to sociological theory, we can draw the conclusion that the British right-wing press are contributing to the perpetuation of the ‘single story’ of migrants. To create the single story, a term coined by the Nigerian writer Chimamanda Adichie, is to “show a people as one thing, as only one thing, over and over again, and that is what they become.” (Adichie, 2009) In many respects, that is precisely what the British right-wing press have been, and continue to be, guilty of. They paint a picture of migrants as “plagues” and “swarms” – in essence, intruders who come to Britain in so-called “packs,” akin to groups of animals – and they are viewed in such a light repeatedly, to the extent that this is what society associates them as being. Similarly, this also touches upon the idea of social constructionism, associated with Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann (1966).

In conclusion, it is clear from the evidence presented throughout this essay that it is correct to say “‘Brexit’ and the ‘migration crisis’ are just the most recent example of migrants being presented as a threat” on a number of fronts. As has already been alluded to, there have been instances from the past, for example, the post-war period when a dramatic surge in ethnic minority migrant arrivals triggered concerns over a lack of jobs for Brits. Thus, they are, indeed, “just the most recent example”. Furthermore, as regards how the threats are portrayed, a right-wing media bias is at play which has not only contributed to and escalated the social construction of migrants being presented as a threat but also perpetuated the single story of migrants. In addition, through the distinct lack of impartiality in the British press’ reporting of political events, such as ‘Brexit’ and the ‘migration crisis,’ we are exposed to the way in which ideas of class and race are reproduced over time and how notions of Western superiority are carried on indefinitely. However, that is not to say that migration is entirely devoid of opportunities. Indeed, this essay has acknowledged the extent to which the country can reap the rewards of migration, particularly from an economic standpoint. Nonetheless, the vast majority of media stories related to Britain’s departure from the EU and the increasing numbers of migrant arrivals have undeniably presented migrants as being a threat, from which the conclusion can be drawn that the statement is accurate to a large extent.

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