Spurred on by civil war in Iraq, Libya and Syria and by instability in several African countries, more than 1.8 million migrants/refugees arrived in the EU in 2015. This massive pressure from immigrants and refugees led to a humanitarian crisis on a global scale while threatening the key instruments of border control in the EU and, at the same time, increasing uncertainty about the political, economic and societal implications for member states. The ‘crisis’ was highly politicised in domestic politics owing to the heightened salience in media coverage, the mobilisation of citizens holding exclusive nationalist identities by mostly right-wing populist parties and exacerbated polarisation in public debates. In such circumstances, popular disapproval of the EU’s management of the crisis grew and provided a suitable platform for the growth of anti-EU and anti-refugee/immigrant discourses, in which the domestic mass media played a major role by reflecting these tendencies and shaping public opinion concerning the ‘crisis’. Employing a comparativist methodology, this chapter investigates how migration issues were mediatised during the ‘refugee crisis’ in three different countries – the UK, Denmark and Germany – and the consequent implications.
Spurred on by civil war in Iraq, Libya and Syria and by instability in several African countries, more than 1.8 million migrants/refugees arrived in the EU in 2015 (Frontex, 2016). This massive pressure from immigrants and refugees led to a humanitarian crisis on a global scale while threatening the key instruments of border control in the EU and, at the same time, increasing uncertainty about the political, economic and societal implications for member states. The ‘crisis’ was highly politicised in domestic politics owing to the heightened salience in media coverage, the mobilisation of citizens holding exclusive nationalist identities by mostly right-wing populist parties (Wodak & Krzyzanowski, 2017) and exacerbated polarisation in public debates. In such circumstances, popular disapproval of the EU’s management of the crisis grew and provided a suitable platform for the growth of anti-EU and anti-refugee/immigrant discourses, in which the domestic mass media played a major role by reflecting these tendencies and shaping public opinion concerning the ‘crisis’.
This chapter investigates how migration issues were mediatised during the ‘refugee crisis’ in different countries and the implications thereof. Recently, a considerable literature has grown up around the role of the media in interpreting and conveying migration issues to the public (Greussing & Boomgaarden, 2017; Holzberg et al., 2018; Hutter & Kriesi, 2019; Krzyżanowski et al., 2018; Lawlor & Tolley, 2017; Rheindorf & Wodak, 2018; Szczepanik, 2016; Vezovnik, 2018). However, much of the research up to now has been restricted to single case-studies focusing on discursive shifts on migration issues with a limited scope. The importance and originality of this study are that it comparatively explores the mediatisation of migration issues in three countries (the UK, Denmark and Germany) and offers some crucial insights into the connection between Euroscepticism and anti-immigrant attitudes, since the case selection is representative of the different attitudes towards the EU and migration issues (see Sect. 12.3 for further details). Additionally, most studies in mediatisation have tended to conflate and analyse asylum and migration topics into one category, although the two issues have different meanings and the people concerned – asylum-seekers/refugees and migrants – have different legal statuses. Little is known about the various trends in migration and asylum issues in media discourse. This study fills this gap, analysing these issues individually and addressing the different framings of migrants and asylum-seekers/refugees. Hence, here, the phrase ‘migration issues’ is used in a broad sense to cover asylum, asylum-seekers, refugees, migration and migrants.
I begin by explaining the media framing of migration issues and its impact on public attitudes. From here, I analyse the media coverage on migration issues in the UK, Denmark and Germany in the context of the ‘refugee crisis’ between 2015 and 2018. This timeframe also comprises the Brexit referendum in the UK, the opt-in/opt-out referendum in Denmark and a general election in Germany. Through the claims-making analysis, I trace the migration-issues discourse via two newspapers from different alignments per country, particularly focusing on issue linkages with the EU. The findings reveal that the language used in reporting the news varied between the countries, contributing to the Brexit vote in the UK, the opt-out decision in Denmark and the loss of the votes of Chancellor Angela Merkel in Germany. Discursive variations in the media coverage in these countries also manifested themselves in referring to the distinction between the concepts of ‘migrant’ and ‘refugee’.
2 Media, Migration and Public Opinion
It is now well-established that the media are critical for obtaining and exchanging information and opinions in democratic societies, not only as passive transmitters but also as active contributors to public debates (Bijsmans, 2017). From this perspective, media reporting has a remarkable impact on shaping public attitudes through agenda-setting and framing. While the former tells people what to think about, the latter suggests how to think about them (Eberl et al., 2018). Thus, the role of the modern media is not limited to reporting and commenting on the news or informing the public but includes interacting with society, configuring public debates and expectations and influencing public attitudes and political systems.
Looking at the academic literature on the media coverage of immigration, there is a consensus among scholars that migration issues are generally presented in a negative manner and as a problem increasing the sense of panic and public anxieties (Krzyżanowski et al., 2018). Many studies have shown that migrants, refugees and asylum-seekers are framed in the media as invaders and a potential threat to the well-being of receiving countries (e.g. Berry et al., 2015; Buonfino, 2004; Eberl et al., 2018; Esses et al., 2013; Pasetti & Garcés-Mascareñas, 2018).
This trend could be explained by the fact that citizens are not sufficiently informed to evaluate political issues directly but take their cues from the media (Schuck & de Vreese, 2006). Thus, media reporting provides most citizens with a basic source of knowledge, serving as a link between ‘cue-givers’ and ‘cue-recipients’ (Maier & Rittberger, 2008, 262). Since ‘(h)umans have been shown to be more interested in and more reactive to negative information’ (Eberl et al., 2018, 213), journalists apply selective and cognitive bias in the framings and interpretations of migration, which lean towards negativity, to be able to address the ‘attention market’ (Trenz, 2017). In this vicious circle, migration issues are often pictured as economic, cultural or criminal threats – a negativity which leads to an increase in the perception that migration is more problematic relative to other policy issues (Eberl et al., 2018; Farris & Mohamed, 2018).
The multidimensional characteristics of migration issues also contribute to this vicious circle. Migration is a transnational phenomenon but, at the same time, is a ‘core state power’ that is ‘an emblem of national sovereignty’ (Guiraudon, 2000, 251). The borders referring to national identity and protection of the public from external threats have always had symbolic importance for nations (Ceyhan & Tsoukala, 2002). For this reason, migration has often been constructed ‘as the flow of foreigners – the other’ (Buonfino, 2004, 48) – detrimental to both national identity and public order. Thus, it has great potential for contestation between ‘us’ and ‘others’ and is prone to domestic coalitions with nationality as a defining characteristic. Since they increase the sovereignty concerns of nation states and identity concerns of the public, migration issues are salient and open to contestation, which contributes to negative framings in the media.
As such, many studies have postulated a convergence between the media coverage of immigration and anti-immigration attitudes in public opinion (Eberl et al., 2018; Van Klingeren et al., 2015), with the former also influencing the party preferences and voting behaviour of people. Several lines of evidence suggest that there is a positive correlation between the quantity of news media reports on immigration and the tendencies of people to vote for anti-immigrant political parties (Boomgaarden & Vliegenthart, 2007; Burscher et al., 2015). The increasing popular support for far-right parties throughout Europe during and after the ‘refugee crisis’ verifies this correlation.
Many recent studies have indicated a correlation between the high visibility of the ‘refugee crisis’ in the media and Eurosceptic attitudes (Harteveld et al., 2018). There is a latent potential for migration-related problems to be linked to the EU (Dennison & Geddes, 2018; Hobolt, 2016; Hooghe & Marks, 2019), a linkage observed during the ‘refugee crisis’, which placed immigration and EU freedom of movement at the heart of media and political debates (Kuznik, 2018). Thus, the politicisation of migration issues increased, contributing to a connection between them and the EU. Eurobarometer surveys (2016, 2017, 2018) demonstrated that immigration was seen as the most crucial issue facing the EU. Since EU membership was taken to imply more immigration (Hurrelmann et al., 2015), the domestic public was quite critical of the EU’s handling of migration issues and wanted their national governments to be the ones making migration decisions (Pew Research Center, 2017, 2018). A combination of the high salience of the issue and public dissatisfaction with the management of the ‘crisis’ contributed to the growth of anti-EU tendencies (Webber, 2019), which manifested themselves in national referenda – e.g., Denmark’s on opt-in/opt-out from the AFSJFootnote 1 in 2015 and the UK’s Brexit referendum in 2016, during which conflicts over immigration played a major role (Grande et al., 2019).
3 The Mediatisation of Migration Issues in the UK, Denmark and Germany: Case Selection
Having discussed the relationship between the media, migration and public opinion, I now address the media coverage on migration issues in the UK, Denmark and Germany during the 2015–2018 ‘refugee crisis’ and analyse its implications.
These three countries were chosen for some similarities and differences in their contextual factors, which offer suitable platforms for examining the media discourse on migration issues within a comparative framework. First, they have established liberal democracies with consolidated political institutions and party systems. They are among the most economically prosperous countries in the world – their political stability and economic prosperity play an important role in attracting immigration. According to Eurostat (2019) data, the immigration rate in the UK is 10.8, in Denmark it is 10.56 and, in Germany, 10.6 per 1000 inhabitants. While these rates are very close, they are very high when compared with the EU-27 average (5.43 per 1000 inhabitants). These similarities in wealth and immigrant intake allow for parallel analyses on the different attitudes towards migration issues in the media discourse there.
Second, these countries share a common feature in that – particularly with the recent Eurozone, migration and Brexit crises – anti-EU, anti-immigrant, far-right parties gained popular public support and entered parliament, enhancing the politicisation of migration and European integration in the domestic sphere. In the UK, the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) grew in influence in the years leading to the EU referendum in 2016. During this leave/remain campaign, UKIP used a particularly aggressive tone on migration issues (Tournier-Sol, 2017). Likewise, in Denmark, the Eurosceptic, anti-immigrant Danish People’s Party (DPP) emerged as the second-biggest in the June 2015 elections. Like UKIP, DPP developed a hostile attitude towards the EU, migrants and refugees. In Germany, the far-right, Eurosceptic and anti-immigrant party, Alternative for Germany (AfD), entered federal parliament for the first time, becoming the biggest opposition party there in 2017 and enjoying a surge in popularity through pushing for strict anti-immigration policies on the ‘refugee crisis’ whereby Germany allowed in over a million undocumented migrants. In all three cases, these right-wing parties linked mass immigration to EU free-movement policies. The congruence in rising far-right parties and how they address migration issues and the EU helps us to compare their role in shaping public attitudes towards these issues through the media in case-studies.
Third, these countries epitomise the different attitudes towards migration issues in the UK (anti-immigrant), Germany (pro-immigrant), and Denmark (in-between). This categorisation is based on various studies and reports on migration (e.g. Berry et al., 2015; Eberl et al., 2018; Gorodzeisky & Semyonov, 2019; Heath et al., 2016; Migration Observatory, 2020; Pew Research, 2016) and on the data on the easiest countries to immigrate to in terms of a designated set of requirements authorising immigrants to become permanent residents (World Population Review, 2022). These cases characterise different levels of European integration and represent a range of attitudes towards the EU: UK (hard-Eurosceptic), Denmark (soft Eurosceptic) and Germany (pro-European), thus providing the framework for a comparative analysis on the link between Euroscepticism and anti-immigrant attitudes reflected in the media discourse there.
4 Data and Methods
The primary research method used in this study to obtain data is claims-making analysis (Koopmans & Statham, 1999). Statham and Trenz (2013, 970) define this as ‘a standard method for retrieving systematic and reliable data on the contents of public debates from newspaper sources’. However, this approach differs from conventional newspaper-content analyses in that it takes the ‘claims’ made by public actors – rather than the ‘articles’ – as the unit of analysis. Thus, claims-making provides an opportunity to examine the roles of actors in public debates, the relations between them and the positions they advocate regarding policy issues, in contrast to traditional content analytic methods which usually investigate how journalists frame the news. This approach is an analytic descriptive method, which delineates who and what is present in the public sphere. Thus, the data gathered through claims might respond to questions from a wide range of different theoretical and conceptual backgrounds. Through this method, we can obtain information on:
who addresses or targets who/what;
with which frequency (salience);
in the name of whose interests; and
in which way (positive, neutral or negative).
This study draws on a dataset built for my PhD thesis (Temizisler, 2021) on the politicisation of migration issues and their effects on European integration. It consists of 2129 newspaper articles and 4210 claims, representing public discourse on migration issues in British, Danish and German newspapers between 2015 and 2018. To avoid a possible selection and reporting bias, articles were sampled from two leading high-circulation newspapers in each country, taking both relative right/conservative/tabloid and left/liberal/broadsheet imprint – the most important quality and tabloid newspapers in terms of daily circulation – a selection which appeals to all sections of society. The newspapers chosen were The Times (liberal-broadsheet) and The Sun (right-conservative-tabloid) in the UK; Politiken (centre-left-liberal-broadsheet) and Berlingske (right-conservative-tabloid) in Denmark; Süddeutsche Zeitung (centre-left-liberal-broadsheet) and Bild (right-conservative-tabloid) in Germany.
All articles were downloaded from the databases of NexisUni and Factiva, applying a keyword search that included ‘(im)migration’, ‘(im)migrant’, ‘border check(s)’, ‘border control(s)’, ‘asylum (−seeker)’ and ‘refugee’. The time period – from 1 January 2015 to 31 December 2017 – thus also allows the investigation of discursive shifts during different stages of the ‘refugee crisis’.
The analysis for this chapter is based on a qualitative interpretation of collected claims in the above-mentioned dataset. A constituent part of a broader research design, it includes both quantitative and qualitative approaches used for exploring politicisation levels and impacts in my thesis.
Generally, the quantitative analysis of the claims in the media debates indicated that migration issues in Denmark and the UK received wider media coverage than in Germany during the ‘refugee crisis’. Considering earlier studies suggesting a correlation between the media coverage of migration issues and anti-immigrant attitudes due to negative tendencies in reporting them (Eberl et al., 2018; Van Klingeren et al., 2015), this finding implies higher anti-immigrant attitudes in public opinion in the UK and Denmark than in Germany during the ‘crisis’. Given the national narratives on European integration in the UK (hard-Eurosceptic), Denmark (soft-Eurosceptic) and Germany (pro-European), this result also supports evidence from previous observations linking high visibility of the ‘refugee crisis’ in the media to Euroscepticism (Harteveld et al., 2018).
I now analyse the context of ‘refugee crisis’ in terms of the role of political parties, attitudes towards migration issues and the most debated issue as reflected in the media coverage.
5.1 The Role of Political Parties
In the UK, the ‘refugee crisis’ was reflected as the ‘Calais Crisis’ in which thousands attempted to enter the UK by walking through the channel tunnel. The ‘crisis’ was elaborated in the media as a threat to the UK. Migration subsequently dominated the ‘Brexit’ referendum campaigns in June 2016. The political parties and their representatives from the Brexit or ‘Leave the EU’ camp tended to associate migration issues with the EU (Szczerbiak & Taggart, 2017) and warned that Britain did not have control of its borders and migration policy while it remained in the EU. UKIP was criticised for deliberately stirring voters’ fears, especially using the ‘immigration’ theme and linking it to the EU during the leave/remain campaign (Tournier-Sol, 2017). For example, in March 2016, Nigel Farage, UKIP’s leader, warned people that ‘29 million people from Romania and Bulgaria would shortly be eligible to come to Britain as migration restrictions were lifted’ (The Times, 13/03/2016). UKIP also claimed that the Paris attacks in November 2015 were a direct consequence of open borders (Bennett, 2018). This discourse, produced by UKIP and reflected in the media, contributed to strengthening Eurosceptic national narratives, which were already persistent and based on the idea that Britain is culturally detached from Europe (Spiering, 2015). Thus, the primary concern of the referendum moved from providing special status for the UK in the EU to the issue of freedom of movement and its impacts on immigration, jobs and security (Zappettini, 2019). Eventually, 52% voted to leave and 48% to remain in the EU. Prime Minister David Cameron interpreted the referendum result as being primarily about immigration and free movement (The Times, 30/06/2016). The opposition agreed – Arron Banks, the millionaire UKIP donor who founded the Leave-EU referendum campaign, declared that ‘most people who voted for Brexit did so because of immigration and controlling our borders’ (The Times, 22/02/2017). As Schimmelfennig (2018) summarised, Brexit resulted from a combination of immigration, the rise of a Eurosceptic party and the availability of referenda.
Similarly, the anti-immigrant, Eurosceptic Danish People’s Party (DPP)Footnote 2 was very active during the ‘refugee crisis’ in Denmark. Party spokesman Martin Henriksen argued that ‘(t)he massive Muslim immigration has a spin-off that the costs of surveillance and security are exploding due to the risk of radicalisation’ (Berlingske, 11/02/2015). He also said ‘…crime will also fall at home if we get fewer refugees’ (Berlingske, 09/02/2015). During the referendum campaign, DPP had an important influence on public perceptions, combining the ‘refugee crisis’ with the EU. For example, it called the EU decision on the relocation of refugees a ‘disaster’ (Berlingske, 03/09/2015) and claimed that Denmark risked losing control over its immigration policy and could be forced to accept obligatory EU refugee quotas in the future. Although Denmark had a legal reservation regarding the Common European Asylum System and did not have to accept the refugee quotas, DPP did not refrain from using this ‘false’ argument. As a result, the primary concern of the referendum gradually moved from judicial cooperation to migration issues, despite the government’s efforts to convince voters that the opt-in vote for the referendum did not mean that Denmark would be part of the EU common policy on refugees. At the beginning of the referendum campaigns, there was a public tendency to vote in favour of the opt-in arrangement for EU justice legislation (YouGov, 2015). Having been supported by all segments of society, a ‘YES’ for opt-in was the common expectation (Politiken, 25/04/2015). However, 53.1% of Danes voted against adopting the opt-in arrangement, while 46.9% supported it – a very disappointing result for pro-Europeans and the Prime Minister Lars Løkke Rasmussen. In a speech, he said:
My impression is that the result was not so much related to what we voted on. This is about fear of losing control. I don’t see that this is a ‘No’ to Danish police cooperating with other EU police forces. This is about a general Euroscepticism (Euractiv, 2015a).
The Danish referendum on the EU was used by Eurosceptic parties to raise Eurosceptic sentiments in public opinion through the mediatisation and politicisation of EU migration policies (Oppermann, 2017). As a result, although the referendum asked whether Danes wanted to remain in the EU’s police and judicial cooperation in criminal matters, people voted against the EU’s common asylum policy, contributing to the rejection of further integration.
The ‘crisis’ as an external shock affected Germany, as other member states. According to German officials, more than a million refugees went to the country, with over 476,000 claiming asylum in 2015 alone (BBC News, 2016). The far-right Eurosceptic party AfD, founded in 2013, made huge progress during the ‘refugee crisis’ through party politicians’ anti-immigrant discourse. Alexander Gauland, AfD’s Vice President, declared, addressing the refugees, that ‘Germany was comparable to the fall of the Roman Empire when the barbarians overran the Limes’ (Süddeutsche Zeitung, 09/11/2015). A former party leader, Frauke Petry, suggested that the police should use guns to stop refugees from crossing the border illegally. AfD official Jeanette Ihme suggested sinking the tugboats and the refugees in the sea, saying ‘(r)efugees behave like primates’ (Bild, 09/08/2017). During the 2017 election campaigns, opposition parties mostly criticised Angela Merkel for her approach to the refugees and the ‘crisis’. Her famous phrase ‘We can do it’, suspending the Dublin Regulation and accepting more than one million refugees to the country, were among her most criticised policies in this period. After the Cologne event on New Year’s Eve 2016, when (allegedly) Northern African refugee men assaulted women in and around Cologne’s main station, AfD’s xenophobic and anti-immigrant approach that associated refugees with terror and violence gained popular support. AfD also influenced public perceptions connecting Merkel and the EU with the ‘refugee crisis’. AfD went to the election, calling for the closure of the borders, mass deportation of refugees and abolition of family reunification for recognised refugees.
As a result, the Christian Democratic Union and Christian Social Union (CDU/CSU) coalition, led by Chancellor Merkel, won the election with 33% – a loss of 8% compared to the previous election. AfD, which was previously unrepresented in the German parliament, had 13% of the vote – gaining more than 8 points on its 2013 result – and entered parliament as the third party. This result was a historic success for AfD – an openly nationalist party entering the Bundestag for the first time in almost six decades.
The ‘refugee crisis’ thus led to an increase in the salience of migration issues in the three case-study countries. The far-right political parties used this condition to expand their electoral bases with their speeches in the media, thus contributing to the negative presentation in the media of migration issues as a problem, increasing the sense of panic and public anxiety. They usually referred to security, sovereignty, identity and economic concerns and emphasised the ‘us’ and ‘others’ contestation. In particular, far-right parties in the UK and Denmark used Eurosceptic narratives, associating migration issues with the EU during their referendum campaigns. The increasing popular support for these parties during the ‘refugee crisis’ corroborates earlier studies indicating a correlation between increasing the salience of immigration issues in the media and the success of anti-immigrant parties (Boomgaarden & Vliegenthart, 2007; Burscher et al., 2015; Eberl et al., 2018).
5.2 Attitudes Towards Migration Issues
The content of claims retrieved from the newspapers indicated that the three case-studies have very similar shares of polarisation – in all cases, more than 70% of the claims included a position (either positive or negative) concerning migration issues. Although the percentages are similar, the direction of the positions differs across the countries. While, in the UK and Denmark, more than half of the claimants took a negative attitude towards migration issues, in Germany, it was the other way around.Footnote 3
The anti-immigrant approaches in the UK and Denmark could be attributed to the Eurosceptic narratives reflected in the media, which deem European free-movement policies responsible for the increasing immigration. Consistent with the literature, this result points to an association between Euroscepticism and anti-immigration attitudes (Krouwel & Kutiyski, 2017; Oppermann, 2017; Schimmelfennig, 2018). This connection was also verified through the number of claims linking migration to the EU. We observed that 33% of claims in the UK (hard-Eurosceptic) and 20% in Denmark (soft-Eurosceptic) made a connection between migration issues and the EU (membership, free movement, border checks, free market, etc.), while this proportion was only 8% in Germany (pro-European).
Another possible explanation for this finding might be the approaches and discourse of governments towards refugees and their reflections in the media. The UK and Danish governments were very reserved towards migrants and refugees from the beginning. For instance, they both rejected the European Commission (2015) proposal aimed at relocating refugees in a framework of a quota mechanism, while Chancellor Merkel declared that there were no limits to the number of refugees that Germany could receive in the hectic period of the ‘crisis’ (Bild, 01/09/2015). As a result, Germany opened its door to the refugees stranded in Hungary, so more than 12,000 refugees arrived in Germany during just one weekend (Süddeutsche Zeitung, 07/09/2015). In line with this, large segments of German society, including the press, companies, trade unions, associations, schools and universities, supported the efforts to welcome refugees (Vollmer & Karakayali, 2018). Additionally, in reaction to the drowning of many refugees in the Mediterranean Sea, the German government contributed to rescue operations by sending ships there. However, British Home Secretary Theresa May declared that they would not support future search-and-rescue operations because these would ‘provide new incentives for economic migrants’ (The Times, 13/05/2015). In the same period, the Danish government published advertisements in four Lebanese newspapers aimed at discouraging migrants from going there and warning that Denmark had reduced social benefits to migrants significantly, family reunification for those given asylum would not be allowed during the first year, a residence permit would only be given to those who spoke Danish and rejected asylum-seekers would be swiftly sent back to their home countries (Euractiv, 2015b).
In line with these government attitudes, we observe that the humanitarian problems that refugees/migrants confronted at the start of the ‘refugee crisis’ – such as the discovery of a truck on an Austrian motorway with the decomposing bodies of 71 people or the death of a Syrian baby, Aylan Kurdi, his brother and their mother in their attempt to reach Europe – were debated more intensely in Germany than in the UK and Denmark. The German mainstream press gave wide coverage of these tragedies, which ‘led to a huge wave of empathy and solidarity with the plight of Syrian refugees’ (Triandafyllidou, 2018, 202).
We observe that the governments’ approaches towards the migrants/refugees were manifested through different framings in the domestic media. In Germany, the discourse was based on how pitiful the situation was for these people – ‘The people who come to us are fleeing from IS terror, from the war against their families. Germany must not be a place for racism, hatred and agitation against Muslims’ (Bild, 06/01/2015). However, in the UK and Denmark, these people were framed in a negative way based on the argument that ‘the asylum seekers are not deserving of solidarity and protection because they are bogus refugees; in reality they are economic migrants’ (Triandafyllidou, 2018, 212) abusing social services.
5.3 The Most Debated Issue
Another important finding from the newspapers is the most-debated issue in the case-studies. As mentioned in the data and methods section, the issues analysed in this study comprise migration/migrant, asylum(-seeker)/refugee, border checks and the ‘refugee crisis’. Interestingly, while the most-debated issue was ‘migration/migrant’ in the UK, it was ‘asylum(-seeker)/refugee’ in Denmark and Germany. A more qualitative analysis showed that the language used in reporting the news varied between the countries, contributing to the differences in the most-debated issue.
In the British media, the term ‘migration’ was used to cover ‘asylum(-seeker)’ and ‘refugee’ without differentiating their implications, resulting in ‘migration/migrant’ becoming the most-debated issue. This might be either because claimants have no idea about the differences in the meanings of those terms or because this is a deliberate action. Considering the majority of the claimants’ professions – prime ministers, ministers, experts, academics, NGOs, etc. – the first option loses its force. Additionally, the content of the claims suggests that the claimants made a clear distinction between ‘EU migrants’ (177 claims) and migrants from outside the EU – i.e. ‘non-EU or illegal migrants’ (460 claims). The claimants usually used the phrase ‘non-EU or illegal migrants’ to refer to asylum-seekers and refugees, indicating that they were well aware of the difference between the terms ‘migrant’ and ‘asylum-seeker/refugee’.
This takes us to the second explanation: the line between these terms seems deliberately not to be drawn. The reason for this might be twofold. First, the main concern in the UK was the high increase in EU immigration, particularly after the ‘A8’ East European countriesFootnote 4 joined the EU in 2004. Rather than the refugees, many British people were worried that EU immigrants reduce the pay and job opportunities of the UK-born due to greater competition for jobs (Wadsworth et al., 2016). Since the UK is not in the Schengen passport-free travel zone, refugees were not posing a big problem due to border checks. The UK government admitted that it would receive around 20,000 refugees in the 5 years from 2015 (BBC News, 2015) and it would take some years before they were allowed to apply for citizenship. Thus, the refugees were not frequently referred to in the media.
Second, this was a deliberate action to identify asylum-seekers/refugees with economic migrants and develop a negative attitude in the UK towards the EU’s free-movement policies. A migrant implies a person moving from one country to another. (S)he may be fleeing dire poverty or may be well-off and merely seeking better opportunities (Somini, 2015). However, the term asylum-seeker or refugee denotes a person who has fled his or her country to escape war or persecution and can prove it. These people are protected under the Geneva Convention, Dublin Regulation and other international agreements and cannot be sent back to countries where their lives would be in danger. In light of this, public perceptions of asylum-seekers/refugees changed compared to those of migrants. People can easily comprehend the situation which asylum-seekers/refugees have to face and show empathy for them. However, regarding migrants, there is the potential for people to be biased against migrants’ reasons for coming to their country. As Pasetti & Garcés-Mascareñas (2018) concludes, public attitudes tend to be more positive towards asylum-seekers compared to economic migrants.
Keeping this distinction in mind gives some clues as to the efforts to combine migration/migrant and asylum seeker/refugee in the UK. For example, in a claim, David Cameron – addressing EU migrants – says:
I will go to Brussels with a clear plan: no more benefits for EU jobseekers; if you haven’t got a job after six months, you must leave; no in-work benefits or social housing unless you've been here for four years (The Sun, 01.03.2015).
As can be deduced from this claim, migrants are identified with jobseekers. In the same vein, regarding the refugees in Calais, the House of Commons Home Affairs Committee in the UK argued in a report that
Schengen assumed the external border of the EU would be secure but it is not, so free movement means free movement for illegal migrants within the EU. Some reach Calais before encountering any border controls (The Times, 23.03.2015).
It is striking that the claimants refrained from using the words ‘refugee’ or ‘asylum-seeker’ in their statements, preferring to portray these people as (illegal) ‘migrants’. Such an attitude could be interpreted as an attempt to influence public perceptions regarding asylum-seekers/refugees in a negative way by linking them to migrants, freedom of movement and problems resulting from being an EU member state. This finding also accords with that of Eberl et al. (2018), who argue that to use the terms ‘migrant/immigrant’ is a deliberate action to delegitimise the dire political and personal circumstances of refugees or asylum-seekers.
Unlike the UK, in Denmark the claimants differentiated and used these terms correctly. From the content, we see that seminars highlighting the differences between ‘migration/migrant’ and ‘asylum(-seeker)/refugee’ were held by NGOs such as the Danish Refugee Council. The Prime Minister, Lars Løkke Rasmussen (2015), usually drew attention to this semantic difference in his speeches, declaring, for example, when addressing the Danish parliament, that
Our borders are under a double pressure. Partly from migrants who are seeking to escape poverty. Partly from people who are fleeing from war and destruction… Denmark has a responsibility to help people who are fleeing… We must say openly that there is a difference between being a refugee and an economic migrant. We can never cope with mass migration that is borne by the desire for a better life.
Furthermore, in the British media, claimants almost always used the term ‘migrant crisis’, implying that the current ‘crisis’ was all about people coming to the EU to gain welfare benefits and economic interests rather than fleeing war and persecution. In Denmark, the claimants usually used the term ‘refugee crisis’, with an empathetic approach to refugees and asylum-seekers at the beginning of 2015: ‘(t)he current refugee crisis has prompted almost everyone to talk about the importance of fighting the root causes of poverty and war’ (Berlingske, 27/05/2015). Nevertheless, it was observed that the claimants modified the term to ‘refugee and migrant crisis’, taking a critical position when the ‘crisis’ peaked in the autumn: ‘…the refugee and migration crisis has thrown the Schengen area into a survival struggle…’ (Berlingske, 12/12/2015). The huge influx of refugees at the time could be a major, if not the only, factor causing this shift in discourse in the Danish media.
In Germany – like the Danish case – the claimants were well aware of the differences between the terms ‘migration/migrant’ and ‘asylum/asylum-seeker/refugee’ and used them correctly during the ‘refugee crisis’. In contrast to the UK, claimants in Germany almost always chose the words ‘refugee crisis’ to define the problems stemming from the influx during 2015–2018. Additionally, unlike Denmark, they did not modify this discourse. This approach by German claimants was so distinct from the other cases that some politicians accused the government of equating migrants with asylum-seekers, thereby fuelling fears of immigration.Footnote 5 We can see from the content of the claims that the claimants in Germany generally took a positive approach not only to refugees but also to migrants, unlike Britain and Denmark. The claim ‘(i)f we want to stay wealthy, we must continue to promote immigration, welcome refugees and see them as an opportunity’ (Bild, 26/09/2016) was the dominant discourse repeated by most of the executives and non-executives in Germany.
Considering differences in approach, among the case-studies, to the terms ‘migrant’ and ‘refugee’ in media coverage, particularly during the Brexit vote in the UK, the findings on the most-debated issue are in line with previous studies referring to the role of the media in shaping public attitudes through agenda-setting and/or framing.
This chapter has shown that the refugee crisis, as an external shock, affected all three countries. My analysis of newspaper content indicated that migration issues received wider media coverage in the UK and Denmark than in Germany during the refugee crisis. Also, it was observed that attitudes towards refugees and migrants were more positive in Germany than in the UK and Denmark. These results confirm the correlation between the media coverage of migration issues and anti-immigrant attitudes. Considering the national narratives on European integration in the UK (hard-Eurosceptic), Denmark (soft-Eurosceptic) and Germany (pro-European), these results also support the association between Euroscepticism and anti-immigration attitudes (Schimmelfennig, 2018; Startin, 2017).
Furthermore, far-right parties in all cases increased the mediatisation and politicisation of migration issues. UKIP in the UK and DPP in Denmark, in particular, linked migration issues with the EU, thus manipulating public opinion and moving the subject of referenda from one platform to another. The reflection of the discourse used by political parties and the tone of reporting of migration issues in the media contributed to the Brexit vote in the UK. Similarly, the mediatisation of these issues influenced public opinion on the opt-out decision in Denmark. The increasing popular support for anti-immigrant far-right parties in the three countries is also consistent with earlier studies indicating a link between increasing the salience of immigration issues in the media and the success of anti-immigrant parties.
One of the significant findings to emerge from this study is that the language used in reporting the news varied between the countries, particularly when referring to the terms ‘migration/migrant’ and ‘asylum-seeker/refugee’. These terms were correctly used, differentiating their meanings and legal status, in Denmark and Germany while, in the UK, the term ‘migration/migrant’ was used to cover ‘asylum-seeker/refugee’ in an attempt to link these people to economic or illegal migrants.
This study has also confirmed that the role of modern media is not limited to reporting and commenting on the news or informing the general public. It also includes configuring public debates and influencing public attitudes and political systems.
Furthermore, this work contributes to our existing knowledge of the mediatisation of migration issues by providing a comparative analysis in three countries. It also expands our understanding of the link between Euroscepticism and anti-immigrant attitudes and provides crucial insights into the different usages of the terms ‘migration/migrant’ and ‘asylum-seeker/refugee’ in media discourse.
A limitation of this study is the necessity to restrict the number of case-studies for practical reasons. Further research could be conducted in other member states – for example, Hungary (or Slovakia) and France (or the Netherlands) could be analysed on the mediatisation of migration issues and their attitudes towards the EU, before being compared with the findings of this study. In this way, further details and insights into the correlation between the mediatisation of migration issues and attitudes towards migrants, refugees and the EU could be produced.
Area of Freedom, Security and Justice.
The DPP had 21% of the votes and became Denmark’s second-largest political party in earlier elections.
Although events like New Year’s Eve 2015 in Cologne led to shifts from a humanitarian and empathetic framing towards a hostile and suspicious one (Pasetti & Garcés-Mascareñas, 2018), in general the positive attitude towards migrants and refugees protected them in Germany. Vollmer and Karakayali (2018, 133) explain this situation, saying that a ‘positive discourse toward refugees in Germany has been challenged, tumbled and eventually disintegrated, however, without having fully reversed’.
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Temizisler, S. (2023). The Mediatisation of Migration Issues During the ‘Refugee Crisis’: A Comparative Case-Study of the UK, Denmark and Germany. In: Jakobson, ML., King, R., Moroşanu, L., Vetik, R. (eds) Anxieties of Migration and Integration in Turbulent Times. IMISCOE Research Series. Springer, Cham. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-031-23996-0_12
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