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Dispatches: In the UK Immigration Debate, Words Matter

As any regular reader of British newspapers will know, the portrayal of migrants and asylum seekers is sometimes less than sympathetic. But a startling new study from the University of Oxford shows that the problem is far more widespread.

After reviewing three years’ worth of stories from 20 UK papers, looking for words and phrases associated with migration and asylum, the university’s Migration Observatory has found striking patterns. The most common term used alongside immigrants is “illegal.” Words like “flood,” “wave,” and “influx” are used to describe migration. And the term “failed” is most likely to appear alongside asylum seeker.

These findings are true not only for mass circulation newspapers, but also the higher quality broadsheets. Nor are broadcasters (not looked at in the Oxford study) immune. The BBC, despite its public service mandate, regularly uses the term “illegal” to describe migrants without papers, including in material specifically designed for educational use.

Given this consistently negative language about migration in the media, it should be hardly surprising that British voters regularly identify immigration as one of their top concerns. While debate about the nature of immigration and its impact is perfectly legitimate, British news organizations would do well to follow the lead of the Associated Press, which recently changed its stylebook to end the use of “illegal” to describe immigrants. As AP’s Executive Editor Kathleen Carroll rightly notes, “‘illegal’ should describe only an action, such as living in or immigrating to a country illegally,” and not a person.

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