COVID-19: An End to the UK’s Anti-Migrant Media as We’ve Known It?

Last week, the Government withdrew the second reading of its controversial immigration bill in light of the COVID-19 pandemic; the bill which seeks to create a new points-based immigration system to take effect from January.

With lives being jeopardised by equipment shortages and disproportionately high death rates among the numerous workers of migrant and ethnic background in the sector, the situation has called into question the appropriateness of introducing the system that was announced in February; a hard-line system designed to end free movement and prevent low-paid migrants from living in the UK. 

anti migrant press
The UK has sadly become a hotbed of anti-migrant hostility in just a handful of years as far-right protesters love to demonstrate their repulsion towards immigration. [Image: Al-Jazeera.]

At the forefront of these concerns are the numerous low-paid health and care workers who are currently risking their lives to protect public health.

Yet the decision to shelve the bill seems to reflect a new, emerging appreciation of the roles carried out by migrants in the UK. It is a far cry compared to how they’ve previously been portrayed under terms such as ‘cheap labour’ and ‘low skilled’.

It also seems to reflect an awareness of the new priorities of the public and press. The British media has long been responsible for sewing the seeds of division across the country, awarding it as the most ‘polarised’, ‘negative’ and ‘aggressively’ anti-migrant media across all of Europe according to the UNHCR.

Anyone reading the right-wing media in question, typically top sellers like the Daily MailThe Sun or Daily Express between 2006 and 2016 would have agreed with the UNHCR’s assessment; and assumed that fomenting hostility to migrants was the principle mission of these newspapers, all of which had largely become mouthpieces for the anti-EU, anti-immigration UKIP party at the time. 

The British media has long been responsible for sewing the seeds of division across the country, awarding it as the most ‘polarised’, ‘negative’ and ‘aggressively’ anti-migrant media across all of Europe according to the UNHCR

It was in this midst of this charged, right-wing climate that the government first introduced its hostile environment policy in 2010, allegedly to reform immigration policy, but also as a way of contending with the challenge of UKIP and pandering to the anti-migrant media of the time. The points-based system announced in February is a loud echo of that policy.  

May's hostile environment
This satirical cartoon depicts the former Home Secretary and PM, Theresa May, the architect of the hostile environment, dressed up as one of the infamous ‘go home vans’ that drove around UK boroughs to ‘deter’ illegal immigrants. The text refers to when Mrs May claimed that EU citizens will no longer be able to ‘queue jump’ into the UK. [Image: Steve Bell, The Guardian.]

Even at the time of its announcement in February, before the full impact of Covid-19 had arrived in the UK, the new points-based immigration system seeking to ban immigrants earning below £25,600 seemed contentious on different levels. However, it wasn’t even endorsed by right-wing papers in a way that would have happened a few years ago; for varied reasons. 

Since mid-2016, media hostility towards migrants has been prominent, but it’s lessened considerably. Perhaps this is partly because the ‘Leave’ campaign won, but could also be in part due to editorship roles in both the Daily Mail and Daily Express. These new editors have been known to be less fervently anti-EU or anti-immigration than their predecessors. 

Fomenting hostility to migrants was the principle mission of these newspapers, all of which had largely become mouthpieces for the anti-EU, anti-immigration UKIP party at the time

While there was the repetition of the phrases ‘Australian-style system’ and ‘regaining control of our borders,’ there was also criticism for not setting a cap, and predictions that it may lead to skills shortages in some areas, including the NHS and care. There was also a wide reflection on the weird irony of a new, hard-line immigration system that would have prevented our Home Secretary’s own parents (and those of our former chancellor) from living in the UK. 

Migrants feel unwelcome in the UK due to anti-migrant media hostility
The UK has been accused of pulling the ladder up from invaluable EU and foreign workers,

Among wider Homer Office proposals on immigration, the Daily Mail enthuses over plans to ‘replace migrant workers with robots’ even though it’s clear that they can’t fill the shortages that the points-based system would lead to in areas like social care, for example. 

Former UKIP-leader Nigel Farage struggled to defend the system in an interview with Sky News, when anchor Gamal Fahnbulleh pressed him on some of the moral flaws of the system, notably valuing employment almost entirely by salary level; making low pay and low skill seem synonymous, and disregarding work that’s poorly paid but of high community value, such as social care.  

Farage’s near-term forecast that the elderly in care homes would be taken care of, or that ‘strawberries wouldn’t be left to rot’ couldn’t have been more literally wrong

In response, Farage repeated a blanket mantra of how the new system represents the end of days ‘when UK business could rely on cheap foreign labour;’ again equating all lower-paid work with low skill and low social value. Farage again failed to address the practical questions over what businesses should do if they need experience and skills that are inexpensive, but unavailable locally.  

This conversation has emerged again under the nationwide lockdown. Farage’s near-term forecast that the elderly in care homes would be taken care of, or that ‘strawberries wouldn’t be left to rot’ couldn’t have been more literally wrong. The elderly are dying because of Covid-19, and the situation might be far worse if the staff shortages under the new system were already impacting. 

The Daily Mail is just one example that frequently emblazons anti-migrant hostility across its front pages. [Image: Sub-scribe.]

The whole of the fruit and vegetable harvests would also be going to waste this year if hundreds of experienced Romanian pickers weren’t being flown in at high cost on chartered flights because of the lack of able applicants here, and despite huge local recruitment drives. 

Fruit and vegetable harvests would be going to waste this year if hundreds of experienced Romanian pickers weren’t being flown in

This clearly is not the sort of news ‘Little England’ would expect or want to hear regarding ‘The Romanians.’ Nevertheless, it’s what’s reported faithfully by its own press, along with daily human stories of bravery and dignity, along with those of heavy losses among those on the frontlines against Covid-19; so many of which are of BAME background. As such, it might just suggest that the days of consistently anti-migrant media are behind us. 

All things considered, rethinking and not just kicking the points-based system into the long grass would be wise. 

It might just suggest that the days of consistently anti-migrant media are behind us

However, if there is ever to be a silver lining to rise out of the depths of a global pandemic, it might just be that migrants emerge as the unsung heroes who have always been with us; who have toiled in their efforts considerably so; whose hands we have held and joined forces with this time of darkness and who deserve far more than media slander and prejudice. It is up to the people of Britain to ensure we never forget.

Written by
Raoul Walawalker
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