Images are used to make refugees illegal and deny them asylum

When you see pictures of migrants, they often depict ragged people behind barbed wire fences or on a shaky boat heading to shore. The visual images impact on our perception of legality and crisis. Additionally, the law does not protect migrants equally in all jurisdictions.

Associate Professor Dorota Gozdecka examines immigration from the point of view of law and the image: She looks at how law develops when influenced by images of not belonging. Images are at the heart of Gozdecka’s research, particularly the ways in which they create emotional responses that are subsequently translated into legislation. Gozdecka has, for instance, researched how images were successfully used to aid introducing changes to Australian migration law.

An immigrant is described as suspicious and even criminal

Gozdecka has specifically researched NO WAY in Australia and the GO HOME poster campaigns in the UK, which gained the support of policy-makers. Immigrants and asylum seekers were successfully portrayed as a criminal faceless mass seeking entrance to the country.

“Sayings such as ‘seeing is believing’ and ‘out of sight, out of mind’ tell us how much images and imagery affect our thinking,” says Gozdecka. “When we do not see an asylum seeker as an equal and similar person to ourselves, we do not care.”

In 2014, the Australian Department of Immigration and Border Protection released a NO WAY poster and video campaign aimed at preventing refugee boats from entering Australian territorial waters and sending them to detention centres in Nauru.

According to Gozdecka, immigrants are presented primarily as strangers, not as family members, productive members of society or experts in the field, for example.

Images are gaining more and more importance in the media and in society. In many visual campaigns, for example, the refugee boat has become synonymous with lawlessness and dishonesty. When refugees are seen as an extra disadvantage instead of having a face, a story, a family and a reason for migrating, it is easy to associate them with criminality and prevent them from entering the country.

In these two countries, the authorities used visual campaigns for completely new purposes to justify, for example, legislative initiatives related to border control. The same is true for well-functioning democracies as well as countries run by populist or authoritarian governments.

Australia seeks new immigrants but who are the right ones?

Australia is a migration country that continues to seek new immigrants. Refugees arriving by boat, however, due in part to being portrayed as potential criminals, are not considered eligible, whatever their experience or education. The authorities focus on the ‘right’ kind of immigration.

“There are media studies on this matter,” Gozdecka says.

According to Erica Consterdine, a British researcher of politics, a key component in shaping public attitudes to immigration is the mass media. The established literature finds unequivocally that media portrayals and framing of immigrants as a security threat and/or a problem are significant in shaping negative public attitudes towards immigrants, and this is especially the case in the media coverage of the refugee crisis. A further finding from the established research is that in terms of voices represented in media coverage on asylum, political elites dominate in the press whilst migrants and asylum seekers themselves lack any voice. In terms of the refugee crisis specifically, the evidence suggests that there have been temporal shifts in the framing of the crisis as it has evolved, from an initial humanitarian and empathetic framing towards a hostile or suspicious framing. The crisis unfolded in phases with triggering events across Europe, which are reflected in the media discourse and narrative. The evidence also demonstrates large regional and country variations in media coverage of the crisis.

In the United Kingdom (before the Brexit referendum), the “GO HOME” van campaign to deport illegal immigrants was an example of the visual discourse surrounding Brexit.

The campaign website contained posters of handcuffs and called for refugees to return to their homeland voluntarily. The handcuffs depicted the lawlessness that had to be got rid of.

Globally, migration is seen as a global crisis, not a resource. Gozdecka argues that repeated negative images contribute to this perception. Provocative images often lack any portrayal of the circumstances people escape from, like war, persecution or famine.

“It is difficult to change the perception created by an image that purports to present facts. Therefore, the emotional response created by these images needs to be explored. Understanding their power can help us understand how certain images of immigrants and refugees also affect legislation and the debate on legal reform.”

Immigrants and asylum seekers are presented as a cohesive group

The public debate invokes values and emotions that turn immigrants into a large faceless mass.

Gozdecka shows how images maintain assumptions about ‘genuine’ and ‘bogus’ refugees. In Finland, too, pictures of expensive mobile phones, watches and designer clothes are used to portray ‘bogus’ refugees. A ‘genuine’ refugee is usually pictured as a poor object of charity, although under international refugee agreements everyone has the right to protection and asylum, regardless of wealth. Equal human rights belong to everyone.

Gozdecka does not see a solution to the situation.

“Decision-makers lack the desire to offer solutions. If we instead focused on the contribution refugees make to our societies, a better solution could perhaps be negotiated.”