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The Semantics of Migration

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Today I started my day with an intense debate with a close friend about how negative attitudes towards migrants and minority groups are reflected in the every-day language we use in our conversations. I was arguing that stereotyping should not find its place in the public vocabulary. She insisted that I espoused a much too optimistic view on the matter. As she put it, "All nations use racist language targeting a minority or another. Look at other European countries. They all like to pick on one or two vulnerable ethnic groups". I had to throw my hands up in the air at this point and agree with her. Nevertheless, the conclusion was disheartening; just because most people do it doesn't mean it's right or morally acceptable.

Frustrated, I opened my Twitter account which I use to monitor any new developments in my research area of migration. The tweets were all too familiar as of late. My screen was inundated with headlines referring to the stereotyping of migrants and foreigners. The top story last week was Prince Philip's joke about the Philippines being "half empty" since their nurses are now running the NHS. And this is coming from arguably the nation's favourite migrant, according to a study by British Future. Has he forgotten that he is also foreign-born?

Another incident, although not as publicized, happened on bus 253 in London a few evenings ago. An elderly gentleman decided to vent his frustration on foreigners living in the UK, verbally abusing those on the bus who didn't look white and British, calling them at one point "f*cking bomber[s]". Thankfully white and non-white Londoners on the bus had the civil courage to eventually come together to stand up and stop the perpetrator.

These two episodes took place in different circumstances. The offence on the part of Prince Philip was regrettable but unintended, while the man on the bus displayed clear animus to foreigners. Still the two incidents share one similarity common to migrant reality in the UK. Namely, the remarks expressed are inspired by sensationalized media headlines about the immigrant threat, i.e. the increasing number of foreign-born staff in the NHS and London's increasingly cosmopolitan and ethnically diverse ethos.

Since 15 January, when Eric Pickles brewed up controversy over next year's expiration of work restrictions for Romanians and Bulgarians, who are fellow EU citizens, immigration-related panic is now again in the public arena. Nationwide a lot of ink has been spilled by the British press covering this subject, especially in terms of economic implications, social impact and public policy. A simple online search I did of the British press produced well over 700 articles written in a little over a month. The subject of immigration is top of the media's agenda at present, with most stories revealing a generally negative bias towards immigrants. There are some laudable attempts by various journalists to provide better balance to the subject, but these are few and far between.

I want Romanian and Bulgarian migration, and migration in general, to be a subject of debate and analysis in the media. The migration phenomenon is increasingly affecting our lives and we need to find policy solutions to effectively manage and deal with it, both to the greater benefit of UK society and for immigrants themselves. That is the reason why I also study it.

The problem is government and media are not currently up to the challenge of dealing with migration. Instead both currently castigate immigrants as potential benefits fraudsters. I, along with most people, support cracking down on any immigrants coming here to abuse the British welfare system. After all, it's every country's right to protect its citizens. Nevertheless, the number of 'benefits migrants' are extremely small. Yes, anecdotal cases can be found, similar to the anecdotal weekly press scandals involving the purported benefits abuse committed by natives - another unfortunate stereotype now embraced by media and encouraged by the present government.

What worries me most is that mainstream politicians are unwilling to engage in honest debate about migration and to propose serious solutions to managing it. Instead contradictory messages regarding immigration are sent, opening the door for more bigoted voices. Radical, stereotyping, and anti-migrant rhetoric is rapidly creeping into the public vocabulary; it now can be heard from public figures to the ordinary individuals. What once was perceived as language and attitudes associated with far-right nationalism is now mainstream.

The deterioration in public media debate on the Romanian and Bulgarian immigration to UK is worrying. It fundamentally encourages "inflammatory rhetoric" as the Romanian Ambassador to the UK Ion Jinga put it this past week. Currently, a lot of research looks at the negative terms and tones used by the press when reporting about ethnic minorities, migrants, refugees and asylum seekers. Based on a submission drafted by the Migrant and Refugee Communities Forum (MRCF), the Leveson Inquiry report noted that "When assessed as a whole, the evidence of discriminatory, sensational or unbalanced reporting in relation to ethnic minorities, immigrants and/or asylum seekers, is concerning". Clearly put, media helps form society's opinion, it doesn't just reflect it.

I can give a personal example. In the light of the negative media coverage of the potential influx of Romanian and Bulgarian migrants, just in the last month I have been referred for the first time as 'being of less desirable origin' because of my ethno-national background. I swept the two incidents under the carpet and moved on, as most migrants do when faced with such stereotyping. These words are a refined phrase recently used by the press to say that some ethnicities are inferior to others. So Ion Jinga's fears that migrants are perceived as second-class citizens are coming true. Is this what we want in Britain? I don't think so.

So how do we change things? My view is that the vast majority of reasonable people who desire a sensible balance on migration need to clearly tell politicians not to give into the extremes. Migration can be the subject of reasoned debate without all the vitriol. Clear and reasonable policies can be adopted. In this regard, the media has a special responsibility to serve the public interest. It should avoid anecdotal evidence which then becomes the norm in the public conscience and instead publish research-based evidence. Unfortunately, both the government's reluctance to provide coherent immigration policy and the media's discriminatory portrayal of migrants inhibit our ability to have a healthy debate on migration, to the detriment of my adopted country which I have come to love as much as my homeland.

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