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Last Updated: Wednesday, 22 December, 2004, 10:20 GMT
The word-play of asylum reports
By Dominic Casciani
Community affairs reporter, BBC News website

Reporting asylum responsibly involves a minefield of terminology. But even then, the BBC often receives complaints about its choice of words. Dominic Casciani discusses the complexity of getting it right.

The Sun
Asylum is a hot topic for the press, often ending up on the front page

A public meeting some time ago illustrated the challenges now faced by the media in properly and responsibly reporting the asylum process.

There was a clear divide in the attendees; most were vehemently opposed to a proposed asylum centre on the doorstep of their community.

A significant minority were equally opposed but said that the asylum seekers themselves should be welcomed if it indeed went ahead.

One woman said it was nonsense to assume that asylum seekers-equals-crime and was shouted down.

Political issue

Temperatures run high over asylum - indeed a recent opinion poll suggested that immigration in general is now one of the top three political issues.

ASYLUM TERMINOLOGY
Asylum seeker does not mean refugee: it means someone who has applied for political asylum, whether they deserve it or not.
A refugee is someone who has been given political asylum and a special form of legal protection.
Illegal immigrant itself is a difficult term. There is no specific crime of "illegal immigration".
Some analysts use phrases such as undocumented workers, emphasising the role of these people in Europe's black economy.

So how is the media to cover it properly? The short answer is, with great difficulty.

Asylum and the wider immigration system is immensely complicated.

People come to the UK for all sorts of reasons. Some may be fleeing violence. Some may be seeking a better life. Some may be trying it on - the so-called "benefit-shopping" effect.

The dangers the media face is in leading people to make assumptions about the intentions of others in our honest efforts to simplify what goes on.

So a good place to start in reporting asylum is the terminology.

Political asylum

Asylum seeker does not mean refugee; it means someone who had applied for political asylum, whether they deserve it or not.

A refugee, however, is someone who has been given political asylum and a special form of legal protection.

We as journalists should know the difference between these two and ensure we are using the right tag in our stories.

Asylum seekers
Are these people asylum seekers, refugees or immigrants?

We should also where possible find out more about the individuals to present a rounder view of who they are.

Asylum does not equal all immigration.

It is just one part of the immigration jigsaw every year with students, workers, family reunion and even returning Brits being the larger parts.

Again, the BBC expects its reporters to explain this where necessary.

Criminal gangs

So what about illegality? Aren't asylum seekers illegal?

Seeking asylum is not a crime - but many asylum seekers resort to criminal gangs to get into Europe.

The ones I have spoken to say they do this because it is the quickest and surest way to flee or get to their destination. Few appeared happy about it. Many won't talk about it at all.

Even illegal immigrant itself is a difficult term. There is no specific crime of "illegal immigration".

The immigration service can very quickly change someone's status from unwelcome to welcome, if the individual proves their point.

Does this mean someone is still illegal or never was in the first place?

Asylum seekers (generic)
There is no specific crime of "illegal immigration"

Some analysts and economists use phrases such as "undocumented workers", emphasising the role of these people in Europe's black economy.

This too is inadequate as there are those, such as spouses and children who don't fit this mould either.

Balancing act

In terms of reporting criminal trials involving asylum seekers, there is a difficult balancing act.

The British media have a tradition of reporting facts about the accused's background.

It is part of our duty to do so in the interests of open justice.

But disproportionate weight should not be given to the fact that a suspect is an asylum seeker, unless it is relevant to the crime and the story.

The Daily Express
Was the Express right to use the term "illegals" in this headline?

This is a general principal we try and follow in all our crime reporting, whatever the individual's background.

Adding to this mix of confusion and muddle is the paucity of official information.

There are many areas of the immigration debate where we simply don't have enough data from central government.

A recent Home Office report conceded nobody is sure how to count illegal migration. We also don't know how many people actually leave the UK every year.

All of which demonstrates why there are no answers other than to be careful about the language we use.





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