Joint Committee On Human Rights Written Evidence

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 regime.

  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 United Kingdom.

  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 seekers—and the refugees among them—have 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 for—among other grotesque statements—describing 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 debates—border 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 migration—in the main part resistance to it—with 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 seekers—presenting them as menacing statistics, as criminals and bringers of disease, or as some other form of generalised abstract aberration that is easy to hate—continue, 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 seekers—often 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 context—country 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 in reporting.

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 good practice

  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 initiative.

  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.

Bemma Donkoh

Representative to the United Kingdom

previous page contents next page

House of Lords home page Parliament home page House of Commons home page search page enquiries index

© Parliamentary copyright 2007
Prepared 30 March 2007