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How British tabloids’ framing of Albanian migrants fuels anti-immigrant sentiments

In recent years, the forced migration of Albanians has become one of the most hotly debated topics in international relations and British domestic politics.

The controversy behind Albanian migration may in part be due to a significant increase in the number of Albanians crossing the English channel in 2022, with what has been seen as a weaker claim to asylum, making it the largest nationality of people attempting to reach the UK. The Home Office claimed to be granting asylum to Albanians at a ‘higher rate’ than many other European countries and a change in the way asylum claims were processed saw the British government struggling to process and house an increasing number of migrants with tensions building within communities surrounding migrant facilities.

In 2015, Europe and its media watched on as a humanitarian catastrophe began to unfold, which soon became known as the European Migrant Crisis. Nearly one million people arrived in Europe during this time, and according to UNHCR 3,550 lives were lost making the crossing during this period.

In 2022, as the crisis arrived in the British Channel, sections of the media chose to negatively frame Albanian forced migrants, effectively silencing them, and ignoring the humanitarian assistance that was needed. This framing contributed to the ongoing political debate on immigration in the UK, fuelling a negative rhetoric and potentially emboldening a government bent on being seen to be tough on immigrants and taking back control of British borders.

Tabloid newspapers, such as The Sun and The Mirror, often described as “populist, condensed, accessible and brash and often boundary-pushing and provocative”, both expressed strong anti-immigration narratives by negatively framing Albanian immigration.

Both tabloids used narratives that portrayed Albanian forced migrants as a threat to Britain by using frames to ‘Securitise’ and ‘Criminalise’ them. In doing so they effectively described them as a threat to Britain’s economy, social and political systems, presented against the backdrop of the Covid pandemic, a developing economic crisis, and a fractured National Health Service.

Since The Sun is renowned for its anti-European stance and its support for Conservative governments, its alignment with the Tory government on the threat from immigration might not come as a surprise. The Mirror, a leading pro-Remain paper during the Brexit campaign and a tendency to sit on the left of the political spectrum, also, more surprisingly, portrayed Albanian forced migrants negatively and as a threat to British life and its economy.

Frames that humanise or empathise with those (victims) entangled in the crisis were used sparingly. Both resisted the opportunity to build empathy between the public and Albanian forced migrants and to justify humanitarian support as a moral obligation on Britain’s part. An overriding negative narrative towards forced Albanian migrants during the 2022 small boat crisis, marked a stark lack of compassion within British tabloid media, that not only denied Albanians a voice, but contributed to the politicising of an issue mired in human suffering.

The use of negative framing to portray migrants is not exclusive to the UK and its practice is seen as a prohibiting factor in effective debate regarding migration in Europe. Judy Dempsey argues that the “EU’s failure to forge an effective migration and asylum policy undermines European integration”. Sarah Spencer outlines the need for a more responsible debate around the presence of migrants in Europe, including the reasons for them being there, the difficulties they face and their potential contribution. She goes on to stress the need for “acknowledging public fears, and correcting misinformation”.

The problem with the language of migration

The multifarious terms to describe migration have tended to fuel division in the debate as to who can legitimately claim asylum. The labels ‘economic migrant’ and ‘illegal migrant’ versus ‘refugee’ are used to imply that some migrants are more deserving than others. In reality, the bifurcation is oversimplified and ignores the many reasons why migrants are forced to leave a country.

Following the 2022 small boat crisis, The Sun, increasingly described Albanian migrants using the term ‘economic migrant’. Alexander Betts argues that the media use the term pejoratively, implying that migrants have a choice and ignores movement due to force or coercion which effectively weakens the need for asylum.

Albania is no stranger to the ebb and flow of migration and clues as to why Albanians fall into the category of forced migrants might be found in the U.S. 2021 Human-Rights Report on Albania. High levels of corruption and criminality in Albania’s government failed to provide for and protect its citizens; poverty, violence, and lack of employment opportunities are considered the main drivers of forced migration.

Frequent use of the term ‘illegal migrant’ by The Sun also contributed to the negative framing of Albanian forced migrants, incorrectly placing the illegality on the individual rather than the act of crossing the channel. While migration without permission can be illegal, even if the need is genuine, a person cannot be illegal.

The Mirror took a more neutral stance in its choice of vocabulary, choosing to use ‘channel migrant’ or ‘Albanian migrant’ without advocating the status of forced migration, which could have fostered a degree of empathy with their situation.

Notably, the term ‘refugee’ was used infrequently in both The Sun and The Mirror when describing Albanian forced migrants following the small boat crisis of 2022. A recognised term implying the need for international support argues Betts, and a term associated with a moral obligation to help was largely absent from these British tabloids, and with it an opportunity to express support for humanitarian assistance at least.

The successful Securitising and Criminalising of Albanian forced migrants

The securitising of Albanian forced migrants by The Sun and The Mirror is demonstrated by presenting them as a threat. A strategy known as ‘Othering’ contributes to this process where Albanian forced migrants are described as the ‘they’ who impact the ‘us’, the British people. The impact is always negative and the threat is largely economic. It presents the ‘they’ group as ‘uniform’ and employs the strategy of stereotyping.

The threat to British resources and welfare from Albanian forced migrants were themes typical of both tabloids. They included the National Health Service and a strain on already stretched services and references to an increasing number of food banks on British high streets.

The Sun 2022 went as far as describing Albanian forced migrants as a threat to what ‘it means to be British’. Andrea Lawlor found that when issues of resource and welfare scarcity emerge, the issue often enters national debate. Against the backdrop of an economic crisis, the themes are likely to resonate, driving division between those who deserve and those who do not.

Evidence of the criminalisation of Albanian forced migration could be seen across both publications but notably by The Sun. While it is recognised that some Albanian migrants may be involved in crime, it does not justify The Sun’s description of ‘frauds in dingies’ and ‘crooks coming to further their criminal aims’. It effectively merges criminals, potential criminals, and victims.

Across both tabloids no other nationality was specifically blamed for criminal activity, suggesting an element of ‘scapegoating’ further impacting the discourse around genuine forced migrants. The Sun described Albanian ‘gangs’ while The Mirror depicts ‘Albanian gangsters’ and ‘Albanian mobsters’ specialising in smuggling migrants.

The lack of differentiation between criminals and forced migrants in the current discourse serves to disempower those in need and serves the debate leaning towards ‘extraordinary measures’, such as The Illegal Migration Act and the threat to leave the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR).

Scarce positive framing in the portrayal of forced Albanian migrants

A strategy that could have been used to present Albanian forced migration as deserving of humanitarian support is that of ‘humanisation’. Within the humanising frame one might expect reference to humans, personal accounts, and the use of familial terms to help the reader identify and empathise with Albanian forced migrants.

The Sun used the term ‘human’ in the context of human trafficking, human rights, and exploitation with two exceptions, one referencing loss of life and the other referencing human misery. These were the only times that the word was used to represent empathy.

The Mirror referenced ‘a humanitarian crisis’ and suggested the government viewed it as a ‘tedious inconvenience’. It reported a charity worker’s description of ‘stressed, disturbed and completely disorientated’ migrants, ‘cold and hungry’ but there were no direct interviews with victims and arguably The Mirror aimed to criticise the Tory government as much as highlight the plight of forced migrants.

Its overall negative framing of Albanian forced migrants creates ambiguity in its reporting and contributes to the politicising of the issue, shifting attention from migrants themselves.

Victimisation’ is another frame that can be used to personalise forced migrants rather than stereotype and while there is some evidence of this strategy to portray Albanian forced migrants, they were mostly portrayed as victims of criminal activity which according to Lilie Chouliaraki, can incur disapproval when presented as helpless and “dependent on external support” as they were in both tabloids.

Why framing matters?

The use of framing to portray forced migration matters as it contributes to and has the potential to influence the political debate around immigration. Managing forced migration is one of the most politically and morally charged issues faced by Europe and the UK.

Two stories were reported recently highlighting the tensions between and within countries on the debate. When Italy criticised Germany’s financial support for the rescuing of migrants in the Mediterranean, it did so for domestic politics.

Similarly, UK Home Secretary Suella Braverman’s assertion that a review of who qualifies for asylum is needed because of an ‘existential challenge’ from migration comes a year before a general election and at a time when she has been criticised for failing to protect UK borders. Conservative MP Bob Neill, critical of her speech, called for a “serious debate on immigration…in a calmer way with measured language”.

In the feisty disgruntled world of tabloid journalism, criticism of migrants and a lack of compassion towards them fails to address the difficulties facing forced migrants and those countries they seek to enter. It fuels negative politics domestically and inhibits sensible debate on European integration generally.

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