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Council of Europe's anti-racism body concerned by intolerant anti-migrant discourse by UK politicians and media


Report finds worrying examples of intolerance and hate speech in UK media, and even among politicians

Date of Publication:
04 October 2016

Council of Europe's anti-racism body concerned by intolerant anti-migrant discourse by UK politicians and media

04 October 2016

The Council of Europe's European Commission against Racism and Intolerance (ECRI) has today released its latest monitoring report on the UK.

The comprehensive 83-page report, covering the situation up to 17 March 2016, can be read here.

While the ECRI report overall welcomed the fact that the UK has generally strong legislation against racism and racial discrimination, it noted that "[t]here continues to be considerable intolerant political discourse focusing on immigration and contributing to an increase in xenophobic sentiments."

In addition, ECRI is concerned by hate speech in some media, particularly tabloid newspapers, with articles about vulnerable and minority groups based on biased or ill-founded information. The report highlights that Muslims are often portrayed in a negative light by certain politicians and media publications.

On the subject of hate speech in political discourse, the report states: "there continues to be considerable intolerant political discourse, coming from the populist anti-migrant UK Independence Party (UKIP) as well as other political actors. Such discourse has focused, in recent years, on the issue of immigration. For example, in the run-up to the lifting of EU restrictions on access to the labour market for nationals of Romania and Bulgaria, there was large-scale scaremongering by UKIP and some Conservative MPs that hundreds of thousands of people from the two nations could soon be on their way to Britain. Terms such as 'invasions' and 'floods' were frequently used as well as the expression 'benefits tourism', despite a 2013 European Commission study finding no evidence that the main motivation of EU citizens to migrate was benefit-related. ECRI considers that using such terms contributes needlessly to an increase in xenophobic sentiments. The Council of Europe's Human Rights Commissioner stated that it was unacceptable to treat Bulgarian and Romanian citizens like a scourge and that the debate had taken a worrying turn. Even the Prime Minister, when asked about the Calais crisis in July 2015, spoke of a 'swarm' of people crossing the Mediterranean seeking a better life in Britain. The UN Special Representative of the Secretary General for International Migration accused politicians of adopting a 'xenophobic response' to the migrant crisis and said their language had been 'grossly excessive'."

ECRI called upon all political parties in the UK to take a firm stand against such intolerant discourse, warning that prejudicial comments from well-known political figures have an impact on the public and legitimise intolerance.

The report added that "[t]here is little mention in public debate that EU migration, or migration in general, is overall economically positive for host countries" and it encouraged those who engage in this debate to ensure that they do not provoke hostility towards migrants themselves.

On the plus side, ECRI said it took note with satisfaction that senior politicians have made important statements or speeches on the contribution of black and minority ethnic communities and Muslims to British society.

On the subject of hate speech in the media, ECRI said in its report: "ECRI considers that hate speech in some traditional media continues to be a serious problem, notably as concerns tabloid newspapers. According to NGOs, the media play a prominent role in encouraging prejudice against Roma, Gypsies and Travellers, as well as other vulnerable groups. The European Roma and Travellers Forum has expressed concern that some media regularly disseminate biased or ill-founded information about these communities and that they distort and exaggerate facts and reinforce stereotypes. A 2011 survey provides evidence of high levels of negative attitudes in the media in Northern Ireland towards Travellers and Eastern European Roma. ECRI notes that certain tabloid newspapers, which are the most widely-read national dailies, are responsible for most of the offensive, discriminatory and provocative terminology. The Sun, for instance, published an article in April 2015 entitled 'Rescue boats? I'd use gunships to stop migrants', in which the columnist likened migrants to 'cockroaches'. ECRI notes that following this, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, emphasising decades of 'sustained and unrestrained anti-foreigner abuse' in the press, stated that 'vicious verbal assault on migrants and asylum seekers in the UK tabloid press has continued unchallenged under the law for far too long'. He urged the authorities and media to take steps to curb such incitement to hatred in line with the country's obligations under national and international law."

The report says such hate speech is "particularly worrying not only because it is often a first step in the process towards actual violence but also because of the pernicious effects it has on those who are targeted emotionally and psychologically."

ECRI Chair Christian Ahlund was quoted as saying: "It is no coincidence that racist violence is on the rise in the UK at the same time as we see worrying examples of intolerance and hate speech in the newspapers, online and even among politicians … The Brexit referendum seems to have led to a further rise in 'anti-foreigner' sentiment, making it even more important that the British authorities take the steps outlined in our report as a matter of priority."

The report also considered the situation of asylum seekers and refugees in the UK and was concerned that they "often live in situations of poverty and social exclusion."

ECRI says there has been limited strategic and resourced support for refugee integration since the 2011 closure of the Refugee Integration and Employment Service.

The report stated: "The main problem faced by new refugees is the extremely short 'grace period' in the transition between asylum seeker and refugee status. Those in receipt of asylum support (accommodation and cash) cease to be entitled to it 28 days after notification of being granted refugee status. During this short period, refugees have to obtain housing and a means to support themselves through employment or welfare benefits. Finding accommodation is particularly difficult since refugees may lack the money to pay the deposit or advance rent. They frequently resort to staying with friends, living in hostels or sleeping rough in the streets. Only those deemed vulnerable, generally the disabled or those with children, will get priority access to emergency accommodation. Further, refugees must receive a national insurance number before they can access welfare benefits. A British Red Cross report states that moving to mainstream benefits takes much longer than 28 days and many new refugees are at risk of destitution during this time. The organisation calls, among other things, for an extension to 40 days to avoid a break in support."

In addition, ECRI noted in the report that when it comes to citizenship, "the United Kingdom has the most expensive citizenship fees in the world".