The Language of the Migration ‘Crisis’ – Past and Present

by Dr Daniel Renshaw

On mainland Europe a status quo that has preserved peace on the continent for the last half century is beginning to fall apart.  Meanwhile, back in the United Kingdom, attitudes and policy towards long-established relationships with the outside world are undergoing a seismic shift, with demands for legislation to prevent free entry of economic migrants and political refugees into the country, fuelled by the rhetoric of a right-wing press and pressure groups.  Sound familiar?  Welcome to the Britain of 1905, where, for the first time in modern British history, legislation – the Aliens Act – is about to be passed, restricting free entry into the United Kingdom during peacetime.

Britannia refuses immigrants, 1905

Britannia refuses entrance to immigrants, 1905


Now, as then, the ways in which language is used and the loaded (and coded) terms employed are crucial in determining how the parameters for the debate surrounding the migrant ‘crisis’ are set.  A correspondent in a popular daily tabloid newspaper recently described migrants attempting to cross the Mediterranean as ‘cockroaches’.[1]  In some headlines, migrants are simply referred to as ‘illegals’; the complex motivations for migration and displacement reduced to a single word. ‘Migrant’ itself is a loaded term. The language of dehumanisation has durable roots.  In the 1990s, the term ‘asylum seeker’ – a term of great antiquity and originally referring to the protection of fugitives or the oppressed by the Church – was re-fashioned by the press into one loaded with overwhelmingly negative connotations.[2] Nor is the coded racism in the speeches of politicians a new phenomenon  – see for example Margaret Thatcher’s infamous January 1978 television interview which the term ‘swamp’ was used to describe the changing ethnic makeup of Britain.[3]

To return to the late-Victorian and Edwardian periods, the parallels between the depiction of ‘illegals’ in the early twenty-first century and those of Irish, Jewish, Chinese, Italian and other minorities are often striking.  Both Irish Catholic migrants and Jewish refugees were depicted in the popular press as not only an economic threat to the well-being of British society, but also a political one. Jewish and Irish immigrants were linked in reports with political violence and subversive tendencies: the Irish were associated with Fenianism on both sides of the Irish Sea, and Jewish migrants with Marxism, anarchism and syndicalism.[4]  In the build-up to the Aliens Act of 1905, the pro-restriction press stressed the need to keep out the ‘refuse of Europe’, invariably presented as dirty, syphilitic, criminal and also as budding revolutionaries.[5]  In this narrative, migrants were men and women who had ‘failed’ in Europe, and were detritus now making its way to British shores.  As ‘illegals’ are compared in the contemporary press to ‘cockroaches’, so in 1902 did Cosmo Gordon Lang, Bishop of Stepney, label the Jewish incomers from Eastern Europe as ‘locusts’.[6]

Living above the (sweat) shop in London's Covent Garden, 1871

Living above the (sweat)shop,in London’s Covent Garden, 1871


Both Irish and Jewish groups were perceived as being prepared to live in worse conditions and work longer hours for less pay then ‘native’ competitors.  In the popular literature of the mid-Victorian era, ‘Irish’ and ‘slum’ were used almost interchangeably.[7]  Italian migrants were in particular associated with organised crime, secret societies and ‘vendettas’.  Meanwhile, the small Edwardian Chinese community had a whole plethora of contemporary social ills laid at their door; this was collectively brought together in the inflammatory designation ‘the Yellow Peril’, and promoted in the sensationalist literature of Sax Rohmer and others.[8]

Over the course of the great wave of Irish migration to Britain during the nineteenth century, and then with the arrival of the Jewish diaspora following renewed pogroms from 1881 onwards, it was frequently asserted that neither group was capable of contributing to British society, that they would remain permanent outsiders excluded by virtue of ethnicity and religion from the British body politic.  Sometimes the language used to attack these new arrivals was explicitly racist or sectarian, but coded terms also had their place in the discourse.  The British Brothers’ League, for example, a far-right pressure group established in the early twentieth century to demand immigration restrictions, rarely referred to ‘Jews’ in its official literature, but always to ‘aliens’.  No-one, however, was in any doubt which section of the population was being focused on in their polemic.[9]

Retrospective nostalgia on the part of the press, and politicians, also plays a role in the way anti-migrant discourse is framed, comparing the current migrant group(s) unfavourably with previous waves of settlement.  Early nineteenth-century immigration into Britain from Catholic Ireland was positioned against the successful integration of Protestant refugees from France and Flanders in the seventeenth century. In turn, Jewish arrivals in the 1880s and 1890s were unfavourably compared with the Irish of a generation before, and by the 1960s the Jewish experience was held up as a model of successful integration when contrasted with the new arrivals from the Caribbean and South Asia.[10]

Previous waves of migration are celebrated as part of a halcyon former age, the problems accompanying them forgotten or downplayed, and the minority groups in question co-opted retrospectively into a national narrative.  At the same time the contemporary situation is framed as unprecedented, condemned as exceptional, and positioned as a ‘new’ phenomenon, shorn of its historical context.  This is not to underplay the very real problems surrounding the present ‘crisis’ and how Britain responds to the greatest movement of peoples across the world since the Second World War.  However, it is worth recognising, as we have seen, that the ways in which the British press and the government have shaped the language in which the debate is being held are not new and are not exclusive to the present situation, but that they have been recycled and repeated on numerous occasions since the 1840s if not before.


[1]  The Sun, 17 April 2016
[2] See Edward Mortimer, Treatment of Refugees and Asylum Seekers (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997)
[3] Television interview with Granada World In Action, January 27th 1978.
[4] John Newsinger, Fenianism in Mid-Victorian Britain (London: Pluto Press, 1994) and  W.J Fishman, East End Jewish Radicals, 1875-1914 (London: Gerald Duckworth and Co., 1975)
[5] William Evans Gordon, The Alien Immigrant (London, William Heinemann, 1903)
[6] Evans Gordon, The Alien Immigrant, p.12
[7] See Henry Mayhew, London Labour and the London Poor (London: Penguin Books, 1862 (republished 1985) pp.56-57
[8] See Christopher Frayling, The Yellow Peril: Fu Manchu and the Rise of Chinaphobia (London: Thames and Hudson, 2014)
[9] Bernard Gainer, The Alien Invasion: The Origins of the Aliens Act of 1905 (London: Heniemann Educational Books, 1972)
[10] See Tony Kushner, Remembering Refugees: Then and Now (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2006) for popular memories of different periods of migration, and retrospective ‘-re-writing’ of migrant narratives.
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