Faculty of law blogs / UNIVERSITY OF OXFORD

‘Failed’ Asylum-Seekers and the UK Press



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3 Minutes

Guest post by Will Allen and Scott Blinder of The Migration Observatory, University of Oxford

The Migration Observatory recently published a new study that quantitatively examined how UK national newspapers portrayed different types of migrants, including asylum seekers, from 2010 to 2012. By examining over 58,000 items totalling 43 million words, we looked for words that consistently appeared with mentions of ‘immigrants’, ‘migrants’, ‘asylum seekers’, and ‘refugees’ in tabloid, mid-market, and broadsheet publications. In this post, we (1) outline the methods used which come from the field of corpus linguistics, and (2) share our key findings related to asylum seekers, particularly with reference to criminality and deportation. The project website contains full statistical results and interactive charts that display all of the consistent descriptions of migrants, immigrants, asylum seekers, and refugees.

Methodologically, we had to address two issues: how could over 58,000 items be reliably collected and coded; and how could significant findings and ‘real’ patterns be distinguished from the rest? Corpus linguistics emerged as an approach which could efficiently handle such a large dataset while minimising researcher bias. Basically, a ‘corpus’ is a large collection of texts. In contemporary use, these collections are digitally stored which enables researchers to search and analyse them quickly using various software programmes. Using a large set of texts in this way gives several advantages over conventional or smaller-scale discourse analyses. On a practical level, corpus approaches remove the initial need for humans to individually read and code every item. Crucially, on a methodological level, they significantly reduce researcher bias by starting the analysis on a wide foundation of data that was not built to confirm a prior expectation. They also provide a clear framework within which researchers must base their decisions: although some subjective decisions about where to place cut-off marks for statistical tests still remain, corpus approaches demand that they be consistently and transparently applied.

In our research, the newspapers analysed included:

  • Tabloids: The Sun, The Sun on Sunday, The Daily Star, Daily Star Sunday, The Daily Mirror, the Sunday Mirror, The People
  • Mid Market: The Daily Mail, The Mail on Sunday, the Daily Express, The Sunday Express
  • Broadsheet: The Times, The Sunday Times, The Daily Telegraph, the Sunday Telegraph, the Financial Times, The Independent, the Independent on Sunday, The Guardian, The Observer.
One of the major findings of the report was that ‘asylum seekers’ were consistently described as ‘failed’. This was the only statistically significant word used in connection with asylum seekers throughout tabloid coverage in each of the years 2010-2012, while it was one of only two descriptions consistently used by mid-markets in the same period (the other being ‘illegal’ in a small number of cases). Mid-market items were about three times more likely than broadsheets and tabloids to use the phrase ‘failed asylum seekers’. Illustrative examples included:
  • The UK Border Agency needs to deal with a raft of missing foreign criminals, failed asylum seekers and illegal immigrants. (Tabloid)
  • The report finds students whose visas have expired are regarded as a ‘low priority’ by the agency compared to illegal immigrants and failed asylum seekers. (Mid-market)
  • It is one of 13 secure centres set up to hold foreign national prisoners, failed asylum seekers and migrants who overstay. (Broadsheet)

When we looked at words consistently used within five words to the left or right of ‘asylum seekers’ over the 2010-2012 period, we also found some interesting patterns. The analysis shows how mid-markets and broadsheets mention ‘criminals’ alongside ‘asylum seekers’, whereas broadsheets make greater reference to words related to the process of seeking asylum and government enforcement of elements of the process, including ‘detention’ and ‘deportation’ as illustrated by the following examples:

  • Shocking details revealed by MPs show that 275,000 missing foreign criminals, failed asylum seekers and others have not yet been dealt with. (Mid-market)
  • Legislation to enable the deportation of asylum seekers would be introduced when Parliament resumes today, the prime minister said. (Broadsheet)
  • Concern about the detention of all child asylum seekers—young children detained with their parents and under-18s detained in adult facilities—has grown in recent years. (Broadsheet)

Although it may be tempting to conclude that media coverage drives public attitudes towards migrant groups, including asylum seekers, it remains to be empirically proven that this is the case: coverage may instead be influenced by policymakers or the segments of the public that read different kinds of newspapers. What this report does provide, however, is clear evidence about what the press has actually said about migrants over a critical time in British politics.

A version of this post appeared on the COMPAS blog. You can follow Will Allen and Scott Blinder on Twitter.

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How to cite this blog post (Harvard style): Allen W and Blinder S (2013) ‘Failed’ Asylum-Seekers and the UK Press. Available at: http://bordercriminologies.law.ox.ac.uk/failed-asylum-seekers (accessed [date]).

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