Joint Committee On Human Rights Written Evidence

66.  Memorandum from Oxfam

  Oxfam's UK Poverty Programme together with partner organisations and networks (in Wales, Scotland and London—membership annexed) welcome the JCHR inquiry into the human rights issues raised by the treatment of asylum seekers in the UK. We believe that all the elements to be considered by the Committee raise human rights concerns for asylum seekers. However we will focus specifically on the "Treatment by the Media" element of the inquiry.


  Oxfam's UKPP has been working in the UK since 1996. The Programme's work is organised around three key themes: sustainable livelihoods; gender and race equality; and asylum seeker and refugee protection.

  In relation to asylum, Oxfam has:

    —  Supported advocacy and campaigning on poverty and destitution issues, including abolition of the vouchers system.

    —  Supported the introduction of gender guidelines to the asylum process.

    —  Supported the analysis and influence of the media's portrayal of asylum seekers in the UK.

    —  Analysed the international aspects of UK asylum policyi


  Oxfam has supported partners and organisations working with asylum seekers and refugees to encourage balanced and accurate reporting of asylum issues in the UK. Oxfam has been founding members of, and actively involved in, the following networks who support this submissionii:

    —  Wales (Refugee Media Group Wales—from 2000);

    —  Scotland (Asylum Positive Images Network—from 2004); and

    —  London (most recently from 2006, Asylum Refugees and the Media in London).

  This work has involved considerable effort and has been sustained by organisational and individual concerns about the effects of media coverage on public and political attitudes as well as the belief in the need for collective action to address these issuesiii.

  This practical support work and research has included: media monitoring, polling, analysis of public attitudes research, training in media skills to asylum seekers and Refugee Community Organisation (RCO) leaders, relationship building with journalists, and advocacy based on the documented findings. iv The work carried out by these networks (and others) demonstrates that there continues to be negative, misleading and often false portrayal of asylum seekers and refugees in the media. The media is an important factor that influences public attitudes and affects the climate within which national policy is formulated. They also affect the lives of asylum seekers living in the community, and can have significant impact on community relations and social cohesion.


  As a signatory to the 1951 UN Refugee Convention, which has helped to save thousands of lives since its introduction, the UK has a humanitarian obligation to provide protection to those fleeing persecution or human rights abuse. This obligation must be upheld by full and fair assessment of the claims of each individual applicant for asylum in the UK. State parties must also fulfil positive obligations to protect asylum seekers and refugees from unjustified interference with their right to respect, dignity, privacy, and physical integrity whatever their status while in the UK.

  In accordance with Article 19, all individuals, including refugees and asylum seekers, have a right to freedom of expression and access to information. This also implies that a full range of refugee voices and information about refugees and asylum seekers should be reflected in the UK national and local media. The evidence of this submission suggests that the UK could do more to support the rights of asylum seekers and refugees being met under Article 19.

  The International Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Racial Discrimination's Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD) last considered the UK's 16th and 17th periodic reports in 2003 and noted concerns and made recommendations related to asylum seekers:

    13.  The Committee is concerned about the increasing racial prejudice against ethnic minorities, asylum seekers and immigrants reflected in the media and the reported lack of effectiveness of the Press Complaints Commission (PCC) to deal with this issue.

        The Committee recommends that the State Party consider further how the Press Complaints Commission could be made more effective and could be further empowered to consider complaints received from the Commission for Racial Equality as well as other groups or organisations working in the field of race relations.

  The Committee further recommends that the State Party include in its next report more detailed information on the number of complaints received for racial offences as well as the outcome of such cases brought before the courts.

    14.  The Committee remains concerned by reports of attacks on asylum seekers. In this regard, the Committee notes with concern that antagonism towards asylum seekers has helped sustain support for extremist political opinions.

        The Committee recommends that the State Party adopt further measures and intensify its efforts to counter racial tensions generated through asylum issues, inter alia by developing public education programmes and promoting positive images of ethnic minorities, asylum seekers and immigrants, as well as measures making the asylum procedures more equitable, efficient and unbiased.

  Additionally the UK Independent Race Monitor's report in 2005 recommended:

    7.  The Need for a Balanced Public Discussion

        7.1  As indicated in my previous reports I am concerned about the effect of hostile, inaccurate and derogatory press comment and comments by a few politicians. I do not doubt that this negative atmosphere can affect decision-making on individual cases, as it makes caution and suspicion more likely. The Government has an important role to play in helping to set the tone and encouraging balanced and well-informed discussions on immigration. Repeated references to abuse and reducing the numbers of asylum applicants tend to reinforce popular misconceptions that abuse is enormous in scale when in fact it is a small proportion of people who enter the UK.v

  While the UK Government has acted on some of the above issues the ever-changing policy framework and lack of policy and practical initiatives have exacerbated many of these difficulties. Increasing racial prejudice towards, and attacks on, asylum seekers and refugees, reflect experience across the UK, especially since 1999 when asylum seekers were first dispersed throughout the country to host communities that were, in the main, neither consulted nor prepared.

  In the devolved administrations there has been some differentiation in terms of more positive political leadership, discussion and supporting practical initiatives. This has resulted to some degree in generally more positive attitudes to asylum and refugee issues in Scotland and Wales than in Englandvi.


  Research demonstrates that political and media discourse have played a central role in raising public fears and exacerbating hostility towards asylum seekers, resulting in threats and abuse for asylum seekers and refugees. Clearly sections of the general public remain misinformed about many asylum issues. MORI polling evidence on asylum in 2002vii showed that public perception was that the UK hosted 23% of the world's refugees and asylum seekers, rather than the true figure of 1.89% as well as providing evidence of generally negative perceptions of asylum seekers and refugees in the UK.

  The Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO) 2001 Policing Guide: Asylum Seekers and Refugees included a section on the media to challenge the "ill-informed adverse media coverage" which was contributing to increases in racial tension and public disorder. It stated further that:

    Racist expressions towards asylum seekers appear to have become common currency and acceptable in a way which would never be tolerated towards any other minority.

  Media monitoring and research on the media around asylum and refugee issues continues to show much misrepresentation and negative portrayalviii that is having negative effects in communities in terms of harassment and racial abuse. ix

  There are differences in the reporting of the broadsheet papers and the tabloids and again among the tabloids, but the majority of the tabloids are highly negative. Print, radio and television coverage of asylum issues also show real differences. However there is growing evidence of the broadcast media being heavily influenced by print media and reinforcing its messages.x Television news programmes and broadsheet papers can often be balanced in their coverage but that may be countered by a negative and or stereotyped image accompanying the article or in the foreground of a television programme. Local media, especially where engaged with by refugee support networks, has been found to be considerably more positive.


  Research into attitudes of the public and host communities to asylum seekers and refugees demonstrates the influence of the media in a number of ways. This work demonstrates that the media:

    —  Informs opinion and knowledge about asylum seekers and refugees (and is for many people the primary or only source of information on these issues).

    —  Causes confusion because of the conflation of terminology (eg, failure to distinguish properly between asylum seeker, refugee, illegal immigrant, migrant worker and so on).

    —  Uses provocative ("swamping", "invading" or negative ("scrounging", "criminal") terminology which becomes the "common-sense" language used in host communities about asylum.

    —  De-humanises asylum seekers and refugees through media portrayal of them as criminal/illegal/other, combined with media sources that are in the main elite sources (ie government officials or organisations that speak of statistics and numbers) and fails to represent actual asylum seekers or refugees in their own voice. This makes it much easier for those who have never encountered an asylum seeker except in the media to dismiss them and their claims. They are numbers, official "problems", not real people.

    —  Portrays asylum seekers and refugees as "threatening young men", rarely mentioning refugee women who remain almost invisible. For the reading public, it is much easier to believe that "hordes" of dangerous young men should be deported than it is to think the same of vulnerable women and children. xi Often focuses on a person's immigration status within articles, negating the main story; this is a form of discrimination but is not recognised as such under the Discrimination Article (12) of the Press Complaints Commission Guidelines.

  Greenslade in Seeking Scapegoats: The coverage of asylum in the UK Press concludes that:

    Prejudices amongst some sections of the public towards all incomers to Britain, normally held discretely, have been aroused ... there was no widespread public outcry against asylum-seekers prior to a press campaign of vilification which had the effect of legitimising public hostility ... Much of what has been published has been calculated to inflame a sensitive situation. (Greenslade 2005:29).

  These attitudes contribute to negative public beliefs towards asylum seekers and refugees that strain community relations and can, and have, led at their most extreme to harassment and racially motivated attacks. xii

    I just do not like to be at the forefront, on the picture, because there have been many incidents, attacks on people like us and you never know who the next-door person is ...

    Male Asylum Seeker from Bhutan in UK for two years. xiii


  Asylum seekers and refugees have faced increased racial abuse, harassment and attacks throughout the country especially since the dispersal policy began in 1999. Media vilification can be shown to have increased locally, and especially nationally, through the tabloid press in the same periodxiv.

  This has been born out in research and acknowledged by organisations such as the CRE and ACPO issuing guidance and support in this area. The number of support initiatives that struggle to address this issue is indicative of a real problemxv.

    I feel like nobody here, ashamed like everybody hates me, but they don't know me they only know what they read in the newspapers—and that's not me

    Female Statistician from Sudan

  Asylum seekers and refugees themselves are surprised by the level of hostility they face in the media and also the difficulty in engaging with the press, even when putting themselves forward for interview or as "experts".xvi Many asylum seekers also fear putting themselves forward, afraid that it may affect their asylum claim.

  However, when support is provided to both journalists and asylum seekers to meet, the results can be very positive, with journalists better informed and equipped to write about the lived experience of asylum seeking men and womenxvii.


  As mentioned previously the work of many networks has helped to combat some of the negative media portrayal. Additionally there have been positive initiatives by press organisations such as Presswise/Mediawise (initiating projects such as the Refugees, Asylum Seekers in the Media [RAM] Project and the Exiled Journalists Network) as well as progressive work/support by the National Union of Journalists often supporting refugee media support networks with the voluntary sector. xviii This collective work was instrumental in pushing for PCC Guidance on reporting on asylum and refugees. However this remains too general and weak and is "disappointing" in its enforcement. xix

  These initiatives have been in the main from the voluntary sector. Time and resources as well as funding have been limited. Such initiatives have been most influential at the local level where direct contact with journalists has tended to produce reporting in the local media that is generally felt to be more balanced and representative of asylum seekers and refugees. Sometimes there is good investigative journalism which makes clear why asylum seekers are here and what they contribute to this country: that they have fled persecution and are now living and integrating into local communities. xx The national tabloid press remains problematic and has repeatedly refused to engage with researchers, or, when journalists have agreed to be interviewed they have wanted to remain anonymous because of anxieties about editorial or ownership control. xxi

  Many of the most dearly held characteristics of the media in a democracy: the "independence" of the press, freedom of speech, balance and impartiality, objectivity, can be a double-edged sword in these contexts where news editors for example feel that any overt monitoring or real critique of what they are doing, is likely to infringe all of these time honoured journalistic values. xxii Much reporting is also driven more by the political motivation to embarrass the government than any consideration of the effects media stories may have on community relations or individuals. xxiii This is of course again about press ownership, the economics of selling newspapers, and the complex relationships between these agendas, as well as the journalists' understanding of "news value".xxiv

  The Home Office supported National Refugee Integration Forum has brought attention to this matter at the policy level through one of its working sub-groups (Communities and the Media). However there has not been enough positive articulation, advocacy or discussion around these issues at the political level.

  There has not been much discussion or policy initiative about the need for information and communication to "host" communities about the issue of asylum seeking, in forms other than those provided by the media. This work should be being done in schools, in workplaces, and in communities. Some of this work is directly media related, and would involve improving media literacies so that people examine the media more critically. The IPPR and ICAR research referred to above has shown how badly this is needed if tensions arising from myth and misinformation are to be avoided. One message which could be communicated and which would make a huge difference would be the information that asylum seekers cannot work because of government policy, not because they do not want to work. The media could help here, but that would mean changing journalists' ideas of what has news value and of what they are there to do.

  Political leadership is necessary in order to reverse rather than exacerbate this climate of hostility but it has not to date been strong. Politicians are influenced by both the public and the media. Much policy seems to be media driven and even senior broadcasters, seem to believe that the tabloids "have got it right on asylum".xxv Asylum seekers and refugees themselves, despite many research efforts which have shown how their voices are ignored in favour of elite sources, continue to have little influence on how these issues are portrayed and yet are the most directly affected by them. xxvi

    I don't want asylum seekers or asylum policies to be taken as a political gimmick ... things to laugh at because at any time there are elections every political party takes migration as a target .... They will use the situation to demonise asylum seekers/refugees and will not even recognise the good aspect of the asylum seekers. All the media, the government will start saying is how to detain, how to deport and how to make things harder for asylum seekers. Instead of trying to say things that are positive ... and to make sure how asylum seekers feel at home ...

    James, Asylum Seeker from Sierra Leone, four years in UKxxvii


  We re-iterate the CERD and UK Independent Race Monitor's recommendations made above. We also concur with many of the recommendations made by ippr, ICAR and Article 19 reports previously. These include that:

    —  Politicians and government officials should present asylum issues in a balanced way, as well as provide statistics that are clear and with detailed and contextual accompanying analysis.

    —  The Press Complaints Commission guidance on asylum seeker and refugee reporting should be reassessed, with a view to strengthening it. Its work and findings in this area should be widely publicised.

    —  The media should be held responsible for sourcing statistics and information accurately, contextualising asylum related stories, and presenting asylum seekers and refugees as individuals.

    —  The government should provide greater support for monitoring mechanisms and research to explore the correlations between media reporting and coverage, and public opinion in relation to asylum and refugee issues.

    —  Media and government should pay more attention to the different experiences of men and women seeking asylum, and how gender issues interrelate with other aspects of identity. In particular, they should explore how female asylum seekers are often underrepresented, ignored, and invisible within media coverage.

    —  Communication initiatives need to extend beyond the media to other institutions that construct and represent asylum if human rights issues are to be addressed.

    —  Attention should be paid, and increased resources committed, to measures to tackle prejudice through meaningful contact between refugee and host communities (eg schools, sports clubs, faith groups).

    I think that the British media need to highlight the roots behind the issues of asylum seekers in the UK because I am quite sure that most of the refugees and asylum seekers each one of them has a human rights problem behind his coming to this country. But if you just concentrate on the impact of the refugee issue on the social, economic and cultural life of this country and you forget the roots of the problem which has driven these people out of their countries, absolutely you are not going to tell the truth ...

    Male Asylum Seeker from Sudan, in UK more than two yearsxxviii


  ii  Membership annexed.

  iii  This work also should not be seen in isolation as many other areas/cities have initiated similar networks for similar reasons such as the national Refugees and the Media (RAM) Project as well as numerous smaller initiatives of refugee community and or support organisations in different localities.

  iv  Funding support from and including Oxfam, Comic Relief, EQUAL-ESF, NUJ, Amnesty International, University of Cardiff, and others.


  vi  Lewis M (2006) Warm Welcome? Understanding public attitudes to asylum seekers in Scotland, London: ippr; Lewis M (2005) Asylum: Understanding Public Attitudes, London: ippr.

  vii  Mori Social Research Institute 2002.

  viii  ICAR (2006) Reflecting asylum in London's communities, London: ICAR; Oxfam (2006) Asylum and the Scottish Media: A Report on the Scottish Media, Glasgow: Oxfam; Greenslade R. (2005) Seeking Scapegoats: The coverage of asylum in the UK press, Asylum and Migration Working Paper 5, London: ippr; Buchanan S, Grillo B and Threadgold T (2003) What's the Story? Results from research into media coverage of refugees and asylum seekers in the UK, London: Article 19; Oxfam (2001) Asylum: The Truth Behind the Headlines, Glasgow: Oxfam.

  ix  ICAR (2004) Media Image, Community Impact: Assessing the impact of media and political images of refugees and asylum seekers on community relations in London, London: Information Centre about Asylum Seekers and Refugees (ICAR); Oxfam (2001) Welcome or Over Reaction? Cardiff: Refugee Media Group Wales.

  x  Greenslade (2005); Buchanan S et al (2003).

  xi  Finney N and Peach E (2005) Attitudes towards asylum seekers, refugees and other immigrants, London: ICAR; Lewis M (2006) Warm Welcome? Understanding public attitudes to asylum seekers in Scotland, London: ippr; Lewis M (2005) Asylum: Understanding Public Attitudes, London: ippr; Buchanan S et al (2003).

  xii  ICAR (2004).

  xiii  Buchanan S, et al (2003).

  xiv; Buchanan S, et al (2003).

  xv  Finney, Nissa (2003) The Challenge of Reporting Refugees and Asylum Seekers: ICAR Report on regional media events organised by the PressWise Refugees, Asylum-seekers and the Media (RAM) Project. Bristol, UK: The Press Wise Trust.

  xvi  Cookson, R and Jempson M (2005) The RAM Report: campaigning for fair and accurate coverage of refugees and asylum seekers, Bristol: Mediawise; Refugee Media Group in Wales (2004) Lets talk to the media: Practical guide for refugee community organisations and refugee practitioners on working with the media, Cardiff: Refugee Media Group Wales; Buchanan S et al (2003).

  xvii  Cookson, R et al (2005); Oxfam (2005) Fair Play: Refugees and asylum seekers in Scotland—A guide for journalists, Glasgow: Oxfam; Refugee Media Group in Wales (2004).

  xviii  Cookson, R and Jempson M (2005); IRR (2005) Working with the Media: A guide for anti-racist campaigners and refugee rights activists, London: IRR; Refugee Media Group in Wales (2004); Oxfam (2005).

  xix  Buchanan S, et al (2003).

  xx  Cookson and Jempson (2005); ICAR (2004).

  xxi  Buchanan S (et al) 2003.

  xxii  Prof, Terry Threadgold, Head of Cardiff School of Journalism, Media and Cultural Studies, Cardiff University, reflecting on recent attempts to gain access to TV newsrooms in London in order to complete Oxfam research on these issues.

  xxiii  Greenslade (2005).

  xxiv  Prof, Terry Threadgold, Head of Cardiff School of Journalism, Media and Cultural Studies, Cardiff University, reflecting on recent attempts to gain access to TV newsrooms in London in order to complete Oxfam research on these issues.

  xxv  Of the record discussion with Prof. Terry Threadgold, Head, Cardiff School of Journalism, Media and Cultural Studies, Cardiff University.

  xxvi  Terry Threadgold (2006) Dialogism, Voice and Global Contexts: Asylum, Dangerous Men and Invisible Women, In Anne Genovese and Mary Spongberg eds, Australian Feminist Studies, 21st. Birthday Issue.

  xxvii  ECRE Refugee Stories Project 2006, online from Nov 8:

  xxviii  Buchanan S, et al (2003).

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