Submission to the Joint Committee on Human Rights (JCHR) inquiry the Treatment of Asylum Seekers | Asylum Seeker

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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 works with others to find lasting solutions to poverty and suffering Director: Barbara Stocking CBE. Oxfam GB is a member of Oxfam International. A company limited by guarantee and registered in England No. 612172 Registered office Oxfam House, John Smith Drive, Cowley, Oxford, OX4 2JY. Registered charity No.202918. Submission to the Joint Committee on Human Rights (JCHR) inquiry the Treatment of Asylum Seekers. 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.  About Oxfam’s UK Poverty Programme 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: ã Supported advocacy and campaigning on poverty and destitution issues, including abolition of the vouchers system ã Supported the introduction of gender guidelines to the asylum process ã Supported the analysis and influence of the media’s portrayal of asylum seekers in the UK ã  Analysed the international aspects of UK asylum policy i   Networks supporting this submission 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 submission ii : ã Wales (Refugee Media Group Wales - from 2000); ã Scotland (Asylum Positive Images Network - from 2004); and, ã 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 issues iii . 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.  Human Rights Context  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 sixteenth and seventeenth 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 England vi . Negative Portrayal of Asylum Seekers and Refugees in the UK Media 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 2002 vii  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 portrayal viii  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. Impact of Media Portrayal of Asylum Issues on Public Attitudes 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: ã Informs opinion and knowledge about asylum seekers and refugees (and is for many people the primary or only source of information on these issues); ã Causes confusion because of the conflation of terminology (e.g., failure to distinguish properly between asylum seeker, refugee, illegal immigrant, migrant worker and so on); ã Uses provocative (‘swamping’, ‘invading’ or negative (‘scrounging’, ‘criminal’) terminology which becomes the ‘common-sense’ language used in host communities about asylum;  ã 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 (i.e. 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; ã 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   Impact on Asylum Seekers and Refugees  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 period xiv . 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 problem xv . 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 women xvii .
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