quotation marks surround language that has been frequently adopted by popular media and utilised in anti-refugee sentiment.
Narrative surrounding the “refugee crisis” has dominated Western media for the past five years. Through calculated manipulation of the truth, aimed at a reactive and insecure public, the term ‘refugee’ has come to entail an array of harmful and dehumanizing connotations. We have heard that uncontrollable streams of people are “flooding” countries such as the United Kingdom, the United States and Australia. These perceptions have been deliberately created by government leaders, who utilise public uncertainty in order to spread anti-refugee and anti-immigrant sentiment throughout society. Widely promoted falsities, designed to spark fear and hostility, have perpetuated our inability to see refugees as us. Instead, refugees are alienated, dehumanized and categorized as a burden on the integrity of “peaceful” countries. It is, however, important to understand that there is no “refugee crisis”- this term has served as little more than a pretext for governments to implement extremely hostile policies rooted in nationalism and xenophobia, which place greater value on the security of borders than human lives.
While Western countries promote the “crisis” discourse; one of “overwhelm” and “inundation”, this is far from the reality. In Europe, refugees make up a mere 0.2% of the population of around 500 million. New Zealand itself is one of the worst performers for hosting refugees, up until July this year our quota sat at 1000 refugees per year (it is now 1500). The majority of refugees are actually hosted by neighboring countries, who themselves may struggle with internal conflict, failing infrastructure and overloaded social services. Yet, in most cases, the very countries preserving the violence in countries like Syria, are the ones crying out about the ‘crisis’ and influx of refugees ‘pouring’ in through their borders.
The United Kingdom serves as a prime example of the harrowing reality of deep rooted anti-refugee sentiment, which has manifested into highly restrictive border policies. It is a fundamental human right to seek asylum in any country, enshrined in many pieces of international law, such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the 1951 Refugee Convention. Despite having ratified these instruments and thus being bound by the obligations they entail, the UK government has taken continuous steps in order to virtually erode the right to seek asylum in the UK. Since one must physically be on the shores of the country in question in order to make an asylum claim there, the UK government has sought to make this a virtual impossibility. There is a total lack of safe and legal routes to reach the UK for the purpose of making an asylum claim. As a result, those seeking asylum are left with no choice but to risk their lives in order to do so. Time and time again, senseless loss of life has occurred on the UK border- almost 300 since 1999. These deaths are entirely preventable and are a direct result of hostile border policy.
Looking at the United Kingdom in this context also serves to illustrate how the discourse employed by governments regarding refugees and asylum seekers is often completely divorced from reality. Politicians continuously utilise rhetoric which serves both to dehumanise those seeking asylum and to create the perception that the UK is being overwhelmed by asylum seekers. For example, Priti Patel recently referred to the numbers of channel crossings as “unacceptable,” vowing to make such crossings “unviable” going forward. However, the conscious spreading of anti-refugee sentiment of this nature is deliberate fearmongering, aiming to induce moral panic within the wider British public. This fear and panic is then translated into anti-refugee sentiment, leading to widespread public support for a hardline approach on asylum. The United Kingdom is a textbook example of this pattern, with a study by Helen O’Nions revealing that the British public believed the “problem of asylum to be out of control,” due to the fearmongering from the British media and government.
Despite the widespread public perception in the UK that the country is experiencing a crisis at its borders and is being “flooded” by asylum seekers, this is simply not true. In terms of numbers of asylum claims, Britain receives far below the European average. According to the Commons Library, the United Kingdom received 35,566 asylum applications in 2019. Meanwhile, Germany received 142,500 applications, France received 123,900, and Spain received 118,300. The public belief that the UK is being “flooded” by asylum seekers therefore is unfounded- in reality, the nation should step up its response.
This restrictive approach to asylum is unfortunately all too consistent throughout the Global North and is thus symptomatic of deep rooted issues within our global system as it stands. As the numbers of those seeking asylum have increased, Western states have responded by taking further steps to keep them out. From Trump’s election campaign centered on “building the wall”, to Australia’s offshore detention centres for those seeking asylum, the same trend emerges time and time again- the use of anti-refugee discourse in order to justify the implementation of hostile policy. It is imperative that states rethink their approaches going forward to ensure that they are consistent with their obligations to refugees and asylum seekers under international law.
Despite what politicians and media would have the public believe, the numbers of refugees and asylum seekers reaching the Global North cannot be deemed a “crisis.” The only crisis we are seeing is that those seeking safety are losing their lives directly at the hands of governments and their deeply inhumane border policies. There is no “refugee crisis.” What we are observing is a crisis of empathy and human solidarity.
Consider who and where you get your information from and what has fed the narrative you have fallen into line with, in regards to refugees and asylum seekers. More often than not, public opinion towards displaced people is fueled by xenophobia, racism and a self serving detachment from common humanity. We encourage you to watch the short videos attached below that provide visual insight and personal perspective on the crisis these people face and challenge yourself to justify your judgement towards those forced to flee their homes.
Piece by Gabi Newman & Lauryn Sinclair