73. Memorandum from UNHCR
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees
is mandated to provide international protection to refugees and
facilitate solutions to their plight. This responsibility includes
that of supervising, in co-operation with States, the application
of the 1951 Refugee Convention.
Signatories to the 1951 Refugee Convention,
which include the United Kingdom, have specific responsibility
to protect people forced by a well-founded fear of persecution
to flee their countries and seek asylum. A commitment to this
Convention was reaffirmed by States, in their adopting the 1967
Protocol relating to the status of refugees. These instruments
remain the cornerstone of the international refugee protection
It is within this context that the United Nations
High Commissioner for Refugees welcomes the Joint Committee on
Human Rights inquiry into the treatment of asylum seekers and
would like to respond specifically to the "Treatment by the
media" element of this inquiry.
The United Kingdom's responsibility to protect
refugees must extend to those people who have applied for asylum
and are awaiting a decision.
Asylum seekers in the UK have been subjected
to particularly hostile reporting in recent years by some sections
of the UK press. It is the view of the UN High Commissioner for
Refugees that the negative effects of this tone of reporting have
not been tempered by enough substantive reports on conditions
in countries of origin behind the claims of persecution and war,
or stories highlighting the individual asylum claimants and their
reasons for fleeing abroad.
Guidance from authorities such as the Press
Complaints Commission needs to be enhanced and expanded to take
into account the shift in the misuse of terminology, in particular,
towards a conflation of issues in regard to migration and refugee
movements, as well as media reports that equate asylum seeking
with terrorism suspects.
Refugees are victims of intolerance, virtually,
by definition: it is most frequently political, social, religious
or ethnic intolerance that forces them to leave their own countries
for fear of persecution. Unfortunately, they are increasingly
victims of intolerance in host countries as well, including the
In recent years, a number of asylum seekers
and refugees have been targeted and killed despite having expressing
escaped persecution for the safety of industrialized democracies
like the United Kingdom. And for each one who is murdered, hundreds
are assaulted and thousands are verbally abused. Some of the murders
and most savage assaults are covered by the media. Some are barely
noticed. The rest of the physical and verbal abuse tends not to
register on the general public. Sometimes intolerance manifests
itself as simple indifference to the plight of others.
In the United Kingdom, asylum seekersand
the refugees among themhave increasingly become tools for
politicians, or have been turned into mere statistics by the popular
press. Asylum seekers are easy to demonize. They are foreign,
so an attractive target for those who are suspicious of, or actively
dislike, foreigners or minorities with foreign origins. Asylum
seekers are not a "race", nor do they belong to a single
religion. As a result, they are not protected by race-relations
laws. Indeed asylum seekers have become victims of hatred by the
very act of claiming asylum.
UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Antonio Guterres
noted earlier this year in regard to the trial of British National
Party Chairman, Nick Griffin, "It is chilling to read that
a European politician, albeit one from a minor party, was recently
in court foramong other grotesque statementsdescribing
asylum seekers as `cockroaches'".
The UN Refugee Agency observes that so-called
abuses of the asylum system have been a hot topic in the UK for
a number of years but that abuse of asylum seekers has not. The
EU, the Council of Europe and the UN have, between them, assembled
an impressive array of bodies devoted to researching and making
recommendations about how to deal with the wider issues of racism
and xenophobia. But these discussions have been drowned out by
other political debatesborder controls against terrorism,
the failure to manage integration in some multicultural societies,
and freedom of speech versus respect of religions.
The asylum debate in many industrialised countries
is essentially a public debate, with politicians responding to
what they perceive to be the mood of their electorates. The numbers
of both of refugees and asylum seekers are at their lowest levels
for 13 years. In the view of the UNHCR, the UK now has the time
and the space to take a more rational approach to the management
of asylum, and to make a concerted effort to dispel some of the
hysteria surrounding the issue.
The immediate causes of refugee flows are readily
identifiable: serious human rights violations, persecution, violent
political, ethnic or religious conflict, or international armed
conflict. However, these causes often overlap with, or may themselves
be provoked or aggravated by, such factors as economic marginalization
and poverty, massive unemployment, environmental degradation,
population pressure and poor governance. This complexity must
not be allowed to confuse the issue, however. Conflation of issues
of voluntary economic migrationin the main part resistance
to itwith issues surrounding forced migration by the sections
of the media is irresponsible.
In international and national law, distinctions
are made between refugees, asylum seekers, legal and illegal economic
migrants, minority citizens, travellers and others. These distinctions
are all too easily lost by the media, and most particularly in
the tabloid press.
Attempts to dehumanize asylum seekerspresenting
them as menacing statistics, as criminals and bringers of disease,
or as some other form of generalised abstract aberration that
is easy to hatecontinue, despite a lessening in frequency
since the well-documented most vitriolic reporting in 2003. There
are numerous examples of this highlighted in UNHCR's Refugees
magazine Number 142 "Victims of Intolerance".
History tells us that fomenting hatred of foreigners is a dangerous
path for any society to follow. At the far end of that path lie
the horrors that create refugees in the first place.
The Press Complaints Commission's guidance
on the issue of misuse of terminology in relation to asylum has
been a mixed success.
While the introduction on PCC guidance was welcomed,
the guidance needs strengthening and should take account of new
shifts in media misrepresentation: recent months have seen some
media outlets merge or confuse stories relating to economic migration
and forced population movements. Articles on asylum regularly
appear alongside reports on economic migration. Editorial concerns
are expressed almost in the same breath. Indeed it is common to
see reports on "the coming influx" of EU accession state
economic migrants alongside articles about refugees and asylum
seekersoften with one as an inset of the other.
This intertwining of refugees, who flee as a
result of conflict or persecution, with voluntary population movements
due to migration, presents a serious challenge to the protection
of refugees when the host country population here in the UK does
not grasp the very real elements of persecution that force people
around the world to flee into exile.
Rather than bow to populist opinion, the UK's
media outlets must hold fast to universal values and principles
like the need to protect those in need of international protection.
It is the view of the UN Refugee Agency that tolerance is not
the mark of any specific civilization, but of civilization itself.
1. Strengthen PCC guidance
The UN Refugee agency welcomed the Press Complaints
Commission's publication in 2003 of guidance on the reporting
of asylum and refugee issues. UNHCR believes that the publication
of the PCC guidance was a valuable step in reminding editors of
their responsibility to report stories accurately.
UNHCR has continued to express its grave concern
that the UK's tabloid press continues to publish inaccurate and
misleading stories which are a danger to good community relations.
UNHCR's concerns that incorrect and alarmist reporting propagates
an atmosphere of fear and hostility towards foreigners, including
asylum seekers and refugees, remain despite the PCC's guidance.
Hostile and alarmist media coverage of asylum
and refugees undermines the lives of those who have had to flee
persecution, usually from countries where there is no free press,
rather than inform any legitimate public debate on these issues.
UNHCR recommends that the PCC's guidance be
reissued with an accompanying media campaign to boost awareness
amongst the press. Furthermore, UNHCR advises strongly that the
language of the PCC guidance be made more robust and wide-ranging
to take into account recently emerging patterns in press coverage
such as the conflation of asylum, migration and terror issues.
2. A more balanced political voice
The Government and Parliamentarians must take
all reasonable steps to ensure that asylum issues are presented
in a balanced way with accurate and responsible use of statistics.
UNHCR naturally acknowledges the right of the state to control
its borders and is also concerned about abuse of the asylum system.
It should be a source of gratification and pride that Britain
provides refuge to people fleeing persecution. It is the view
of UNHCR that media reports and comments concerning irregular
migration need to be balanced by a declaration of the number of
people fleeing persecution and war that Britain has given protection
by offering them refuge.
3. More-in depth analysis and contextcountry
of origin and refugee voices
It is the view of UNHCR that media should focus
greater attention on conditions in the countries generating asylum
seekers and commit to increasing the use of refugees' own voices
4. Attention to gender and age
Media must reflect the diverse needs and situations
of asylum seekers and refugees, young and old, male and female.
Too often, representations of asylum seekers are of young men
failing to take into account the situation of women and children
who are often unaccompanied. Frequently, asylum seekers and refugees
are reluctant to share their stories with journalists because
of a fear of reprisals in their countries of origin, or because
the prevailing negative coverage and public hostility makes them
reluctant to do so. But media outlets can find ways to report
on these groups without endangering their security. Around a quarter
of asylum seekers are female. Most of their stories go unreported
in the UK media.
5. Establishment of an awards scheme to recognise
UNHCR recommends that the Government, possibly
working in conjunction with bodies like the Local Government Association,
establish an awards scheme to highlight good practice amongst
the regional and local press in its coverage of refugee and asylum
issues. Mayor Ken Livingstone's London's London Press Awards scheme
is one such effort to recognise good practice in coverage of refugee
and asylum issues by the local, regional, faith and Black, Asian
and minority ethnic newspapers based in London. It is the view
of the UN Refugee Agency that it may serve as a model for an expanded
Regional and local media outlets are highly
influential and often well-disposed to reporting in more sympathy
on refugees and asylum seekers. It is also useful for these outlets
to provide coverage for their readers on the situations and events
in foreign lands that force people to flee their homes and surrender
their possessions in order to flee for their lives. The UN Refugee
Agency believes that such coverage and an awards scheme would
boost support also for initiatives like the Gateway Protection
Programme, the Home Office's resettlement scheme which, since
2004, has brought some 500 refugees to the UK.
The UN Refugee Agency wishes to thank the Joint
Committee on Human Rights for seeking its views and remains available
to provide further clarifications and comment, as may be necessary.
Representative to the United Kingdom