Faculty of law blogs / UNIVERSITY OF OXFORD

The Criminalisation of Migrant Solidarity Actors in the British Tabloid Press


Sébastien Bachelet
Lecturer, Department of Social Anthropology at the University of Manchester
Maria Hagan
Postdoctoral researcher, Department of Anthropology at the University of Amsterdam


Time to read

4 Minutes

Guest post by Dr. Sébastien Bachelet and Dr. Maria Hagan, respectively lecturer and research associate in the Department of Social Anthropology at the University of Manchester. This post is based on research carried out as part of a broader project titled “Acts/Crimes of Solidarity” funded by the ESRC. 

a man and a woman in front of a van and a water tank
Delivering water to migrant people in northern France, Calais August 2022 (Photo by Maria Hagan)

Brutal measures to “crack down” on “uncontrolled” and “illegal flows” of people across the Mediterranean Sea and English Channel generate a steady stream of headlines and opinion pieces as part of an enduring moral panic over migration. Scholars and activists have warned that the violent rhetoric of the far-right has slowly seeped into mainstream public discourses, as exemplified by controversial statements from British Home Secretary Suella Braverman about her “dream” of seeing the picture of a plane carrying asylum-seekers to Rwanda on the front-page of The Telegraph, or her statement that tensions over migrants being hosted in British hotels is “understandable” as violent protests erupted in Merseyside.

In recent years, and as activists, NGO workers, volunteers, and other citizens have continued to mobilise in support of migrant people, a new set of figures have come to be demonised in sections of the British press. We are interested in the criminalisation of activists (including Britons in Calais) as they prevent sovereign state authorities from enforcing the sanctity of their borders and protecting “good” citizens. After visiting Calais in February, the then new Conservative Deputy Chairman Lee Anderson accused charities of “fuelling” migrants’ desire to cross the Channel. Such charities, he claimed, were “just as bad as people smugglers”. Similar claims about “dangerous” and “manipulative” activists – which have also been articulated by French politicians and other representatives of the State –  are now commonplace in the UK media, especially in tabloids. Charities and activists in northern France are portrayed as not only frustrating efforts to tackle the “migration crisis,” but actively compounding it. The headline of a Daily Mail article by Sue Reid stresses that bulldozing the “Jungle” in Calais did not end the crisis as migrants have been “lured back by Charity handouts”. Such crude articles offer deceptive narratives that elude historical and political contexts – and complex life stories – to portray those on the frontline of the “war” on migrants and their solidarity as contentious, if not (yet) criminal. 

In recent years, several solidarity actors have been brought to trial for providing support to migrant people across EU borderspaces (e.g. Sarah Mardini and Seán Binder in Greece; Carola Rackete and Pia Klemp in Italy, Helena Maleno in Morocco and Spain and Cédric Herrou in France). Outrage in the face of the relentless targeting of some NGOs and individuals has often been limited to Europe (and sea crossings especially), though activists supporting migrant people face threats well beyond the Mediterranean. The increasingly negative coverage of the work of activists and practitioners illustrates how the criminalisation of solidarity work is not limited to violent altercations with the State and its judicial machinery, but extends to a wider criminalising media narrative capturing more and more actors in the ‘moral’ battle for border control.

In a January 2023 Daily Mail article - since taken down from the website - journalists accused “public school educated activists” of frustrating efforts to stop migrants from making the Channel crossing. The portrayal of activists and humanitarian actors, especially Britons, as “hardcore”, “anarchist”, or “hard-left” activists (e.g. because of their supposed association with the No Borders network), often relies on accusations that they are “privileged” - with articles derisively reporting that “middle-class British accents” can be heard in the pubs of Calais. The British tabloids go to great lengths to publish regular, scaremongering articles stressing that such activists are present to foster chaos, allow migrants to jump on the back of lorries, and are always ready to resort to violence against agents of the (French) State. In such portrayals, the violence of the state against migrant people and solidarity actors at this border is obscured, while supposedly provocative or violent activist behaviours are foregrounded through ominous reporting and the brandishing of anecdotal evidence (e.g. leaflets depicting silhouettes kicking police vans).

In a stark departure from media representations of migrants as a homogenous mass, when it comes to vilifying solidarity actors, articles often single out activists and researchers accused of taking part in violence.* Such pieces seek to elicit outrage amongst readers, for instance by naming (and providing photographs of) a “funded” doctoral student working on police violence and nicknaming him (“doctor anarchy”), relaying accusations of his participation in violence - even though the charges against him were dropped. Other articles similarly bury crucial details of activists being cleared of charges against them amid their vilifying claims.

This portrayal of solidarity actors as morally deviant is also often gendered. A recurrent trope in the coverage of migration and Calais is the alleged sexual promiscuity that underpins the involvement of citizens in activities with migrants. Articles seek to elicit moral outrage and arouse the curiosity of the reader with regular tales of “fumble in the jungle”. The work of charities is undermined by revelations about a charity boss having “a yearlong AFFAIR with a toyboy Tunisian bodyguard” met in the Calais Jungle. British women volunteering in Calais are described as “going to the jungle for sex”.

In a context where the general public considers the media one of its main trusted sources of information about migration, the dissemination of such narratives about solidarity workers is not anodyne. It contributes to the “long history” of the criminalisation of acts of solidarity towards migrant people by casting doubt on their morality, mirroring well-documented and damaging media portrayals of migrant people. This in turn contributes to “legitimising” brutal crackdowns against these groups on the ground. More worrying still is evidence that states actively feed these narratives: the aforementioned (since deleted) Daily Mail article stated that it was based in part on “an intelligence dossier” about British charities operating in and around Calais gathered by the French authorities and passed on to the UK (a practice also on the rise in the French media). It is these vilifying narratives, rather than the work of solidarity actors to provide support, relief, and advocacy to migrant people, that contribute to manufacturing migration crises.

* We have chosen not to link readers to these articles that “name and shame” individuals as we do not wish to publicise them.

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How to cite this blog post (Harvard style):

S. Bachelet and M. Hagan. (2023) The Criminalisation of Migrant Solidarity Actors in the British Tabloid Press . Available at:https://blogs.law.ox.ac.uk/border-criminologies-blog/blog-post/2023/05/criminalisation-migrant-solidarity-actors-british. Accessed on: 15/07/2024

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