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'Rising' hate crimes: Has Covid-19 made UK media less hostile towards migrants?

By Jo Smith*
The UK media is a powerful machine that has the capacity to sway public opinion. Journalists often pursue stories that will generate eye-catching headlines, under the guise of public interest reporting. However, the language used by some of the UK’s media outlets when it comes to the subject of immigration reveals a distinct bias against those UK residents who do not have British citizenship.
The media played a large part in the campaign surrounding the European Union (EU) referendum, publishing attention-grabbing headlines that perpetuated stereotypes and demonstrated varying degrees of xenophobia. 
The Leave Campaign focussed much of their attention on the issue of immigration in an attempt to try to reassure their core base of voters. Immigrants were consistently portrayed in negative terms, with hyperbolic headlines often misrepresenting the truth about the role of immigrants in UK society.
This overt vilification of immigrants combined with the government’s ‘Hostile Environment’ approach to create a situation in which members of the public felt increasingly comfortable expressing racist views. It became increasingly acceptable to support parties pledging to implement anti-immigration policies, and reports of racially motivated assaults, abuse, and hate crimes rose sharply.
As part of the ‘Hostile Environment’ approach, the Home Office actively encouraged front-line workers in healthcare and other public services to profile their service users and report those that they believed may be illegal immigrants. 
As part of the Hostile Environment approach, the Home Office actively encouraged front-line workers to report those that they believed may be illegal immigrants
In an era in which the Prime Minister described a group of vulnerable asylum seekers as a ‘swarm’, tabloid newspapers became increasingly fixated on the number of migrants entering the UK. According to research from the Migration Observatory, words like ‘million’ and ‘thousands’ have been found to appear beside ‘immigrants’ across all newspaper types, revealing a calculated attempt to generate the incorrect notion that the nation is being overrun by immigration.

Impact of Covid-19

For nearly a decade, migration policy and the debate surrounding the ideal way to manage the UK’s approach to immigration has dominated the headlines. The Hostile Environment was hailed as an effective way to reduce the number of undocumented immigrants in the UK, yet reality of the legislation was the hugely damaging Windrush scandal and numerous cases where British citizens were wrongfully denied access to support and services.
While this should have been fresh in the minds of policy-makers in parliament, the COVID-19 crisis has once again highlighted the plight of immigrants who are being denied access to vital lines of support during lockdown, leaving them and their families in poverty. With many asylum seekers finding themselves in extremely vulnerable positions, campaigners have been vocal about the impact of lockdown on the mental health of immigrants.
The coverage of these issues by many mainstream media outlets has evidenced a more balanced and sympathetic tone that differs from the vitriolic coverage of the past. For example, the knife attack committed by an asylum seeker in Glasgow prompted the Daily Mail to discuss the harrowing situations that asylum seekers find themselves in, and how they are left unsupported by a cruel and unjust system.
Other newspapers have focussed on the vital role that immigrants have played on the front line of the fight against COVID-19. With immigrants filling many positions in care work, cleaning and other vital roles, the UK’s reliance on continued immigration has never been so clearly demonstrated.
The UK is now in the grip of a quandary –- while we rely on continued influx from countries both in and outside of the EU to ensure we have a willing and affordable workforce, the Brexit vote and subsequent general election result suggest that the public will back anti-immigration policies with their feet. A more balanced approach on the part of the media might make the debate a little more nuanced and encourage policies that are informed and appropriate. 
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*Correspondent for the Immigration Advice Service, a team of specialist immigration lawyers who help those in need of support and advice

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