Migrants' Rights Network

The Violence of Labelling Human Lives

by FIZZA QURESHI

On International Migrants Day (18 Dec), here is a reminder of the need to ensure the most vulnerable migrants are offered protection, and aren’t vilified by our media and politicians. Today, we launch the Not Illegal – HUMAN campaign to drop the term ‘illegal migrant’,  and encourage the media to portray positive stories of people from a migrant background, creating a new vision for a more fair and humane society.

Migrant, ex-pat, outsider, other…’illegal’?

As ever, the labels attributed to certain types of migrants continues. Brits abroad are ‘ex-pats’ but everyone who comes to Britain is a migrant – plus whatever the media add in conjunction to create a headline piece.

‘Illegal’ is a label we have seen growing in the press recently. The word ‘illegal’ demonises and denigrate migrants. And it’s easy to fall for that word, when we have such a complex immigration system, which makes it incredibly difficult to understand when someone has the right to be in the UK. But do we always need to know someone’s immigration status for reporting purposes? What does it add?

Just last week, the BBC reported 13 teenagers who had gone missing, as ‘illegal immigrants’. Their headline ‘Northamptonshire Police appeal over Vietnamese illegal immigrants’ was clearly a sensationalist one. It missed the point that these were children, in fact not just any children, but unaccompanied minors, who had gone missing from social services care. In other words, this was a safeguarding issue. Now, why was this story reported in this way? Because they were ‘only’ migrants? Or because the BBC knew a a headline describing people’s lack of immigration status would likely grab the attention?

We would urge the media to consider the impact such labels have on the individuals they centre the story on. When a youth group was asked to discuss the label of ‘illegal’ they described the negative impact such labels and language had on their wellbeing. Here are just a couple of the comments we received.

“It makes you feel like you don’t belong in society” – Priya, young migrant

“You feel it in everyday life, I’m not considered a human being like everyone else, the media is the source to creating all of this in the public eye” – Zahra, young migrant

MRN’s annual summits held in Birmingham, London and Manchester last month focused on whether we could get beyond the narrative of certain migrants being classed as more ‘worthy’ than others. What is apparent is that ‘undocumented migrants’ are deemed to be the underclass of the ‘migrant’ hierarchy. They are not seen as individuals with hopes and aspirations for themselves or their families. They are only measured by their immigration status, or lack of it, and it will determine how they’re portrayed in the media and beyond.

In time, we hope the UK media will consider whether someone’s migrant background is even relevant to a story, and start seeing individuals without labels. 

One Day Without Us

Beyond the Not Illegal – HUMAN petition, in 2018 we will continue to challenge the media and any other commentators to consider writing more ethically. In the meantime, we would encourage everyone to join the One Day without Us event to celebrate migration and migrants in the UK on 17 February 2018.

With Brexit, freedom of movement under threat, and the ‘hostile environment’ pushing undocumented migrants into destitution, its our moment to contest the negative narrative, and make sure migrants recognise they are and will always be welcome because they make our society a better place.

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Fabien Cante

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