First casualty of cutbacks: The truth

Posted on 11/06/2010


To prevent the rash and inaccurate reporting about asylum seekers, we must stare into the eyes of the story, writes a journalist who has. By Paul Kenyon.

When I first began covering migration stories, I had an off-the-record briefing with an immigration intelligence officer tired of all the negative press coverage of asylum seekers and their apparently ceaseless attempts to enter the UK. A few days earlier, the frozen body of an eight-year-old boy had been found in the wheel-arch of a plane arriving at Gatwick airport from Kenya. It turned out to be that of a migrant. He’d sneaked on to the runway in Nairobi and hidden himself in the plane’s landing gear. The piece focused on the search for further bodies, and carried a police reassurance that even if there were survivors it was “very unlikely” a stowaway could penetrate the high security at Gatwick. Not a single mention of what drove him to cling on to a plane at 33,000 feet with barely a wisp of oxygen and protected only by a cotton T-shirt in temperatures of 60 degrees below. My contact made a simple point: “Don’t the tabloids understand? The bigger the risk a migrant’s prepared to take to get here, the greater the horror he’s fleeing from. Surely that’s the story.”

That was 13 years ago, but the seemingly non-stop campaign against asylum seekers, and the wilful misreporting of the issue among some tabloid newspapers, appears to have worsened. “Wilful” is a strong allegation, but it’s a fair one. Many of the offenders are journalists who, on other stories, might question, challenge, check with sources. They seem to have a different set of standards when it comes to migration stories. Important distinctions, such as that between asylum seekers and economic migrants, are often fudged or overlooked; the language is regularly inflammatory; there seems to be a lazy hostility towards the subject matter, implying a universal acceptance that what asylum seekers represent, what they are, is wrong. So, why does it persist?

In 2007 there was a remarkable image on the front page of The Independent: an aerial shot of a group of men, 27 of them, marooned on a tuna net in the middle of the Mediterranean. They were 90 miles from land, without food or water, and had been clinging on for three days. The makeshift boat they’d hoped would carry them from North Africa to Europe had sprung a leak and sunk. While politicians argued about who was responsible for the rescue, the men’s condition deteriorated. They were eventually saved by the Italian Navy.

I asked the editor of Panorama if we could try to find them and discover what drove them to take such a risk. By this time, some of them were living in a hostel in Naples and with their help I pieced together the journey taken by 30,000 African migrants every year. I ended up travelling some of the route myself, from West Africa, up through Niger and across the Sahara, listening to their stories. In the desert we came across dead bodies, young men with empty water bottles in their clenched fists, propped against hot rocks, half submerged in the sand. We followed the trail to the Libyan coast, where immigrants board makeshift boats for Europe. In the end I made four Panorama programmes on the subject and wrote a book, all of which has left me questioning why certain parts of the press seem to get it so wrong.

In the week those 27 Africans embarked on their ill-fated journey, there was an article in the Daily Mail about asylum seekers. It may seem unfair to take one article and deconstruct it, but I judge this one to be fairly typical.


ASYLUM claims made by illegal immigrants cost the public more than £1billion a year, a Government report revealed last night. The migrants, who pay trafficking gangs up to £12,000 to be smuggled into the UK, make up 70 per cent of all claims for refugee status. Officials are obliged to consider every claim and provide benefits while they are doing so, even if the claimant entered the UK illegally. Critics say millions of pounds could be saved by stopping illegal immigrants reaching Britain in the first place.

I have cut it down, but you get a sense of the tone, partly achieved by the tangling of definitions. The impression seems to be that asylum seekers, or illegal immigrants, or refugees, or migrants, are costing us tax payers a billion pounds a year and that they’re being helped into the country by criminal gangs. What it’s actually reporting, I think, is that asylum seekers who had their applications rejected that year cost a billion pounds to process. But let’s deal with the language.

Asylum claims are not made by “illegal immigrants”. The moment they claim asylum they become “asylum seekers”, so they are not in the UK illegally. They become “illegal immigrants” only when they are turned down for asylum and subsequently refuse to leave. What the Mail writer has done here is to merge the two categories, so they become one and the same. Whether by mistake or design, the result is that asylum seekers are associated with illegality.

Then there’s the payment to “trafficking gangs”. Sounds sensational, doesn’t it? And where do these “illegal immigrants” get £12,000 from? Firstly, people fleeing conflict or persecution have to use unorthodox methods to travel to countries of safety. There is no other way. They can’t turn up at the British Embassy in, say, Eritrea and ask for an “I’m-fleeing-for-my-life” visa. So, they rely on professionals to get them out. It doesn’t make their eventual case for asylum any less valid.


You can read the rest of the article by downloading the pdf file.

This article was originally publish in the British Journalism Review, Volume 21, Number 2, 2010.

Paul Kenyon is a reporter on Panorama, and the Royal Television Society’s specialist reporter of the year for his work on immigration stories. His book, I Am Justice, followed the journey of the 27 migrants marooned on a tuna net.