An overwhelmingly negative image of immigrants is portrayed by Britain's newspapers, according to a major new study.

Researchers found the word "illegal" was most commonly attached to "immigrant", while "failed" usually accompanied "asylum seeker".

Campaigners said they were dismayed by the balance of coverage, which was prevalent across tabloid and broadsheet titles.

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"The bias in much reporting on immigration isn't just bad journalism, its undermining Britain's prospects for economic recovery," said Atul Hatwal of the Migration Matters Trust.

Immigration is crucial to paying down Britain's deficit, he said: "But in a media climate where most of what's reported is negative, the real debate we need, about how to best harness migration to support economic recovery, is barely heard."

The researchers, from the Migration Observatory at Oxford University, looked at 58,000 articles in every national newspaper in Britain, made up of over 43 million words.

They looked at the words most commonly used - with 'illegal' top of the pile, in broadsheets as well as the tabloid press, when immigrants were the subject.

For asylum seeker, the buzz word was 'failed'.

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Judith Dennis, of the Refugee Council, said she preferred the term 'refused' ahead of 'failed' in the case of an asylum seeker.

On 'illegal' immigrants, she pointed out that many people, for example from Syria, had to enter the country without legal documents as they would not have a visa in advance.

"I think some of it is genuine misunderstanding," she said.

"People do not realise when they are using the term, they might not have thought what the impact of that might be on someone who is described as illegal.

"It simplifies people's stories."

Jan Brulc, of the Migrants' Rights Network, said the findings underlined the "stereotypical image of someone who sneaks into the country to claim benefits."

"It's definitely something that lumps big numbers of people together," he added.

Breaking down the results, the researchers produced a list of top words in tabloids for immigrants, including 'coming', 'stop', 'influx', 'wave', 'housing' and 'sham'.

Many of these also featured in the mid-market range, including the Daily Mail and the Express, while the broadsheets' list included 'Muslim', 'Jewish' and 'children'.

The researchers said the language of numbers (eg thousands, millions), and security (suspected terrorists) were common.

The broadsheets often focused on refugees' vulnerability, with words like 'child' and 'destitute'.

Dr ScottBlinder, Acting Director of the Migration Observatory at the University of Oxford said: “Immigration is a very prominent issue in British national newspapers, and these media outlets play a major role in the nation’s political dialogue, so it is very important to have a comprehensive picture of this discussion.

"Our data show that illegality, the failure of asylum claims and the size of migrant inflows and populations are clear focal points for newspapers of all types.

“It is extremely difficult to untangle whether media drives public opinion about a subject, or whether it is politics or public opinion that drives media coverage, or some of each.

"But understanding the language newspapers use to describe migrants helps shine a light on how they are playing their role in the complicated relationship between media, politics and public opinion.”