Home from Home? Young People’s Perspectives on Immigration and Asylum Issues

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By Kate Hollinshead

Since the beginning of the conflict in Syria in 2011, it is estimated that just over 4.5 million Syrians have fled the country in fear of their lives. Just over 2.5 million of these are currently seeking refuge in Turkey; approximately 1 million in neighbouring Lebanon, a country the size of Cornwall, and 635,000 in Jordan. The United Nations estimates that 6.6 million people are internally displaced. The total number of people in the world forcibly displaced by war, conflict and persecution rose to a record 59.5 million at the end of 2015 – Syria is currently the single biggest source of refugees.

The conflict is complex, and the suffering unimaginable to many. As with any situation, the media plays an important part in bringing the realities of conflict into our consciousness, but continues to do so with mixed success. Whilst some coverage has shown the severe impact of the fighting on civilians in Syria, whose lives have been uprooted, endangered and torn apart, other media attention has dehumanised the conflict and, perhaps in the most grotesque manifestation of Western European privilege, has instead focussed its attention on the supposed resource and national security threat that people seeking safety will bring.

‘Migrants: How many more can we take? Daily Mail, August 2015

‘Inside: The Pictures that Prove Migrants Swarm to Britain Daily Express, August 2015

‘Britain faces new migrant crisis Daily Express, February 2016

‘Illegals swarm into Britain on empty channel freight wagons The Sun, July 2015

These headlines are among the many, not the few; littered with falsehoods, inaccuracies and outright prejudice towards whole groups of people, these headlines are not tomorrow’s chip paper, but serve as a lasting reminder of how the British Press can so easily reframe conflict and war for their own political and financial gains, whilst shaping the attitudes and opinions of generations of young people who come into contact with their news in a multitude of ways – via social media, parents, and peers.

So what exactly is so wrong with the media’s interpretation of events? Well, it must firstly be highlighted that the crisis coming out of Syria is a refugee crisis, not a migrant crisis. The perpetual use of migrant over refugee in coverage of Syria serves to downlay the suffering of victims of a war and reduce empathy and acceptance of the refugees’ plight. Migrant is a term used to describe someone who wants to move from one country to another to live for various reasons, such as for a new job, to study or to live closer to family.

Let’s not mistake for one second what is happening to refugees as a flight of fancy. No choices have been made to move countries, nothing has been carefully planned, no decisions prudently made about a destination, no packing meticulously planned for weeks, no worry that they could not make it to their destination. People are being forced to move out of their hometown, their country, for one reason alone: if they stay, they could die. Migrant is a word that strips the suffering away and distances spectators from the horrors of the Syrian crisis.

And, it is not just the newspapers which are so guilty of mislabelling refugees. On Holocaust Memorial Day, Prime Minister David Cameron described those living in the Calais refugee camps as ‘a bunch of migrants’ in a jibe to the opposition party leader about his recent visit to the camp. And news outlets such as the BBC continue to talk of migrants, rather than refugees, despite widespread criticism.

No wonder then, that the classroom debates around immigration and asylum are so littered with misinformation and confusion.

In the last 12 months, EqualiTeach has worked with thousands of young people aged between 9 and 18 in a mixture of diverse and non-diverse settings and has witnessed a very real and worrying lack of understanding of these issues. There is a pervasive confusion between what the words ‘immigrant’ and ‘refugee’. The constant misuse of ‘immigrants’ to describe refugees has served to reduce young people’s empathy towards those fleeing conflict. Alongside this mislabeling lies the belief that there is no such thing as a legal immigrant, and that all immigrants are illegally in a country; hardly surprisingly when a study in 2013 found that the word most commonly associated with the word ‘immigrant’ in the press is ‘illegal.’ On a few occasions we have seen the word ‘immigrant’ used as an insult, the belief so strong that being an immigrant is such a negative thing to be. Overwhelmingly, young people from immigrant backgrounds or who are immigrants themselves often carry negative views towards immigrants, so pervasive is the zeitgeist that it often overrides their lived experiences and reality.

The misconception that refugees are actually illegal immigrants causes some young people to view refugees with contempt, many unable to comprehend why they would go to such extreme lengths to flee their country. One young person told me that she thought the ‘immigrants were dumb for taking babies across the sea in a boat because they would probably die.’

The expectation that refugees will be poor causes people to become angry and feel as though they are being fooled when they see refugees with mobile phones in their hands, fleeing the conflict. Young people must be educated into understanding that many of the refugees will have lived good, prosperous lives before the conflict, not that they have lived lives of poverty and are not coming to take what they can from the government. This lack of empathy is evident in many of the discussions we have had in classrooms, with young people suggesting that ‘David Cameron is giving immigrants all the money’ and that they ‘don’t agree with immigrants getting jobs over British people.’ One young person told me that his mum couldn’t buy a caravan in this country because David Cameron has bought them all to house the people from Syria. All of these sentiments fail to recognise that few very Syrian refugees have come to the UK as yet. The UK is home to fewer than 1% of the world’s refugees, and that those who do come into the country are banned from working by the government for the first year that they are here and instead given £36.95 per week to live on. There is no evidence to suggest that refugees and immigrants are getting jobs over British people; empirical research on how immigration to the UK affects the labour market has found little overall adverse effect on wages and employment for the UK-born population.

The perceived threat that refugees bring to the population extends beyond the scarcity of resources to that of national security – we have often heard young people claim that people might be posing as refugees to get into countries and then carry out terrorist attacks. The attacks in Paris are often cited as an example of where this has happened, and young people harbour a real fear that something similar is going to happen in the UK soon. However, it must be pointed that the people responsible for the Paris attacks were French and Belgian nationals, not refugees.

The media’s persistent use of the words ‘swarm’ and ‘flood’ to describe an imaginary ‘migrant invasion’ has caused many to believe that the UK is currently experiencing high numbers of refugees entering the country. Young people ask why they are all coming to this country? Why can’t they go to other countries? Even why they can’t be contained away from the native population?

Not only does this highlight a need to increase young people’s empathy towards those fleeing war and moving countries, but also an absolute necessity to unpick some of the falsehoods that are so easy to believe. According to the most recent statistics from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, there have been 813, 599 asylum applications by Syrians in Europe; 57% of these in Serbia and Germany, 31% in Sweden, Hungary, Austria, Netherlands and Bulgaria, and 12% in all other European Union countries, including the United Kingdom. According to the government, 5,709 Syrian nationals were granted asylum in the UK between January 2012 and September 2015.

It is worth noting that there was a spike in the public consciousness when the extremely powerful picture of Aylan Kurdi was published in the majority of mainstream newspapers, including those who had previously dehumanised refugees regularly on their front covers, as well as eliciting an outpouring of grief on social media sites such as Twitter. For a brief moment, the attitude towards the crisis diverted away from ‘swarms of migrants’ and ‘threats to our way of life.’ The Independent even asked ‘If these extraordinary powerful images of a dead Syrian child washed up on a beach don’t change Europe’s attitude to refugees, what will?’ However, the sadness didn’t last long in the media and it doesn’t seem to have had an enduring effect on lots of the attitudes and opinions we have heard during classroom discussions. This is not to say that these negative attitudes exist amongst all young people, by any means. Lots of pupils are passionate about the need to show compassion to other people, and want to know how they can get involved and help. Nearly all of the young people we have worked with are interested in learning more to better understand the issue.

So, what needs to be done? Well, it is certainly the case that young people need to be provided with the opportunity to be open and honest about their opinions of immigration and asylum, in a safe environment without fear of judgement or labelling. It is important that young people are afforded the opportunity to hear counter-narratives, with facts and statistics to undo misinformation and the opportunity to build empathy and develop their critical thinking skills to navigate their way through the issues. To this end, EqualiTeach has developed workshops, entitled Home from Home, which look specifically at issues of immigration and asylum with young people aged between 9 and 14.

Home from Home workshops are suitable for KS2-KS4 pupils and are tailored according to pupils’ needs.

The aims of the workshops are to:

  • Provide young people with the opportunity to explore the reasons why people migrate and the differences between the terms immigrant, asylum seeker and refugee
  • Increase young people’s understanding of the process of seeking asylum and the difficulties asylum seekers and refugees may face
  • Equip young people with the knowledge and skills to recognise myths about immigration and help them to recognise the dangers of believing in false information
  • Build young people’s empathy and understanding of how they can support newly arrived children in their school

The activities and discussions throughout this workshop are designed to increase young people’s knowledge of immigration issues and combat any myths that they may hold. Young people are given the opportunity to bring forward their questions and concerns about immigration, and consider where these have come from, in a safe and open environment, free from judgement. Workshops are designed to build empathy with the plight of those fleeing danger in their home country and increase young people’s awareness of the dangers of believing in false information.

“The workshops were excellent. They cleared up a lot of misconceptions that pupils have about immigration and refugees. As a result, pupils will be more welcoming to new arrivals and have a better understanding of immigration and the topics that they see in the news” Dr Tripletts Primary School, Hillingdon

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