Faculty of law blogs / UNIVERSITY OF OXFORD

People Can’t Flood, Flow or Stream: Diverting Dominant Media Discourses on Migration



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Guest post by Lena Kainz. Lena is a researcher and philanthropist with a focus in migrant rights. She holds a BA in Political Science and Scandinavian Studies from Humboldt University Berlin and has since continued her studies in Malmö, Sweden, as a graduate student in MA International Migration and Ethnic Relations. Currently, Lena works in a housing project with unaccompanied minors where she enjoys lessons in Arabic and Farsi taught by the children. Her latest research project (in collaboration with Professor Bo Petersson) aims at tracing naturalized metaphorical narratives in mainstream Swedish and German media discourses on migration and their possible impact on readers’ perception of refugees and migration policies. Lena will join Oxford as a graduate student in MSc Migration Studies in the fall of this year. She’s on Twitter @lena_e_kainz.

Anyone following migration-related news is currently inundated with waves of headlines on how immigrants are streaming and pouring into Europe, flooding the continent’s frontiers as well as bursting through national borders. This deluge of water metaphors has not only been pointed out, but also highly criticized in migration studies due to its dehumanizing and panic-inducing nature. Why are media headlines on migration issues still thoroughly soaked in water metaphors? And what can migration scholars do to divert these dominant discourses?

A plunge into the current debate reveals its primary focus on migration terminology. Refugee or migrant, expat or immigrant―as important as these deliberations on the choice of words are―they only touch the issue’s surface. In order to reach more deeply, it’s equally salient to consider how migration issues are being framed. Against this backdrop, the wealth of water metaphors in media discourses on migration needs to be deconstructed and (once again) brought to our awareness.  

In spite of the editorial decision to refrain from using the word migrant when reporting on the horrors unfolding in the Mediterranean and elsewhere, Al Jazeera’s headlines still allude to refugees pouring through European borders and thus paradoxically counteract the network’s original intention of refining the debate. Sadly, there is a plethora of other news sources riding the same narrative wave. 

© Massimo Sestini

While the New York Times Magazine entitles an article and photo series on the events on Lesbos Scenes From A Human Flood, the New York Post reports that the UN expects thousands of refugees to flood Europe. The Wall Street Journal points out that a financially strapped Greece struggles with a flood of refugees. According to the Times of India, refugees continue to stream into Europe. CNN informs us that both Austria and Germany are near the tipping point as the so-called European migrant crisis intensifies. Interestingly, the water metaphor has become so established that even countries without any sea borders are referred to, as in case of Al Jazeera’s headline that thousands of refugees flow into Austria from Hungary.

These headlines are often accompanied by photographs depicting masses of people instead of individuals. This year’s second prize winner of the World Press Photo contest in the category General News is a case in point as it depicts an indiscernible amount of people cramped in a small vessel just off the Libyan coast looking up at the photographer.

Politicians also contribute to drenching media discourses with water metaphors. David Cameron insists that he can’t allow people to break into the country, apocalyptically hinting at the imminent breaking point of a wave of immigrants about to hit Britain’s shores. His Secretary of State for Defense, Michael Fallon, publicly apologizes after referring to whole towns and communities being swamped by a huge number of migrant workers. Nicolas Sarkozy, displaying sewer humor, likens the EU’s deliberations on the distribution of asylum seekers to mending a burst pipe by spreading water round the house while leaving the leak untouched.

Often times, we take these metaphors for granted or even fail to notice them. But the language used in media discourses distorts our perception of reality in a similar way as water surfaces distort the reflection of ourselves. Especially due to their frequent emergence in headlines on migration news, water metaphors pervasively shape readers’ understanding of events. As Lakoff and Johnson argue, metaphors are not only devices of poetic imagination and extraordinary rhetorical flourish, but an ordinary part of our everyday language, thoughts and actions. It is, then, in their seemingly natural, objective, and subconscious application, that metaphors become the most powerful and persuasive.

© Moritz Steiauf

Given the difficulty to contain, channel, or control liquids, water metaphors convey the notion of danger and the urgency of action. Since migratory movements are perceived as unstoppable and thus threatening, restrictive political action is portrayed as a key element in order to regain control over influxes of immigrants into national territories. Even if such perceptions don’t align with empirical reality, water metaphors in media discourses perpetually suggest that migratory movements are primarily directed northbound, towards Europe. While people crossing the Mediterranean are at the centre of attention, migration routes via land or air are ignored. This entails two consequences: first, the spotlight is on one particular group of people only, so-called boat migrants. Second, the prominence of water metaphors contributes to legitimizing dry political responses against smugglers as they are simplistically portrayed as the real scapegoats for drownings in the Mediterranean. Tony Abbott’s stop-the-boats campaign in Australia or the EU’s naval operation to dismantle smuggler networks off the Libyan coast illustrate this point clearly.

Another attribution of water is its lack of shape and color, making it impossible to distinguish one drop from another. By attributing these qualities to people, water metaphorically dehumanizes them. Characterizing migratory movements by alluding to the sheer velocity and volume of water goes along with drowning people’s humanity and individuality as they all merge into a rising tide and insurmountable wave. Another water metaphor with dehumanizing effects is the term anchor baby for children born to undocumented parents. Primarily prevalent in US media, this pejorative implies that people without documents are inhuman and morally bankrupt enough to use their newborns for gain as the baby would anchor the family in a country where they otherwise lack legal rights.

Readers are being flooded by a deluge of water metaphors in current media discourses on migration. Scholars have already aptly criticized the abundance of water metaphors in news on migration due to the calamitous connotations conveyed by them. Especially now, in times when migration-related issues surface on front pages and news headlines on a daily basis and migration scholars are coveted contributors to interviews and editorials, we should recognize these opportunities as our responsibility to divert dominant media discourses in the current debate. Against this backdrop, I propose three suggestions to consider:

First, we should broaden our focus on the choice of migration terminology by questioning both logic and purpose behind the urge for neat categorizations prevalent in politics, institutions, society, media, and academia. We know that often times, if not always, the nature of human mobility is far too complex for possibly attributing a single status to a person on the move. So, apart from legally determining whether someone does have a well-founded fear of persecution, what do we actually gain from obsessively categorizing people and their movements in the first place?

Second, we need to be more self-critical and aware of our own use of water metaphors in contact with journalists and in academic publications. In this sense, a less dehumanizing depiction of reality is a more concrete one, such as acknowledging that people are actually entering not flooding territories and they are crossing not bursting through borders.

This should by no means be understood as an advocacy against metaphors in general because, lastly, we can contribute to turning around dominant metaphoric images linked to migration issues, even by alluding to water. This entails choosing to spotlight positively connoted metaphorical descriptions of migratory movements. The influx of human capital or the surge of solidarity are just two ways of diverting dominant media discourses on migration in a more humanized direction.

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How to cite this blog post (Harvard style):

Kainz, L. (2016) People Can’t Flood, Flow or Stream: Diverting Dominant Media Discourses on Migration. Available at: https://www.law.ox.ac.uk/research-subject-groups/centre-criminology/centreborder-criminologies/blog/2016/02/people-can’t (Accessed [date]).

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