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franciscan - May 2004

The Society of Saint Francis, 2004

Prejudice Against Asylum Seekers: Reinstating The Person

by Adrian Coyle

As I sit here at my word processor on 27 January, it feels rather appropriate to be finalising an article on prejudice on Holocaust Memorial Day.  Psychologists have defined prejudice as the holding of derogatory social attitudes and beliefs and the expression of negative emotion towards members of a group on account of their membership of that group.  From the perspective of the person expressing prejudice and enacting discriminatory behaviour, the 'other' is not being seen as a person, as an individual with specific gifts, traits and outlooks.  Instead, the individual characteristics of the 'other' are swamped by a collective identity: they are seen as members of a particular group and nothing more.

In newspaper headlines in recent years, one 'social group' that has been represented in unremittingly negative and stereotyped ways is asylum seekers.  This 'group' (and I feel ambivalent about using the term 'group' to describe such a diverse category of people) is routinely represented as being composed of scrounging freeloaders from alien cultures who will 'swamp' the country and exert enormous pressure on 'our' resources.  The following quotations are taken from contributions to an internet discussion about a proposal to locate an asylum seeker centre in an English town:

'We have so-called asylum seekers living near us.  They do not integrate.  They are uncivil and hostile.  They make no effort to adapt to a British way of life. Why are we continually fleeced by the government of our earnings to fund those who have not made (and will not make) any positive contribution to our country?'

'These asylum seekers will not only take over [the town], increase crime rates, lower house prices but also get free health care and education'.

These representations exemplify the tendency for prejudice to de-individualise its targets.  Note that there is no diversity in these representations: asylum seekers are seen as constituting a homogeneous group and members of that group are seen in wholly negative terms as isolationist, draining resources to which they are not entitled, hostile and involved in illegal activities.

These sorts of representations are disseminated through the media and other channels. In this process, these representations can be 'backed up' by spurious or decontextualised 'facts and figures' or embroidered in bizarre ways.  Think of the front-page 'exclusive' in The Sun on 4 July 2003 in which asylum seekers were accused of trapping and barbecuing the Queen's swans - a story that was subsequently found to be based on a host of dubious assumptions but which reinforced the representation of asylum seekers as alien people who act in strange/illegal ways and who do not respect their host culture.  It can sometimes be difficult to challenge these popular representations as, through repetition, they take on an aura of something that 'everybody knows'.

Some commentators on the prejudice directed at asylum seekers and others have sought to re-individualise the members of these groups.  In an interview given to the Refugees, Asylum Seekers and the Media Project, Edward Murphy, the Chair of the Merseyside Refugee Support Network, observed, 'We have to keep reminding these...journalists that each asylum-seeker has a personal story'.  In a speech to commemorate Holocaust Memorial Day this year, the Chief Rabbi expressed the view that 'evil happens when we forget that other people - whose faith or way of life is different from ours - are still people like us...people who are not like us are still people, like us'. Locating a group of people outside the boundaries of humankind and civilisation creates a basis for justifying the oppression of that group - or worse.  In the light of what befell the Jewish people in the Holocaust as they were progressively represented as negatively distinct from the majority culture and as uncivilised and ultimately sub-human, the representations of asylum seekers in this country are truly frightening.

The themes of the individual and the collective are readily discernible in the Bible.  There we find that God does sometimes address us in collective terms, albeit through individuals (for example, think of the covenant God made with Abraham and his descendants in Genesis 17 and of the promise made to the people of Israel through Moses in Exodus 19:3-6).  However, the Bible consistently emphasises God's focus on and care for us as individuals.  Indeed, our individual preciousness in the eyes of God is emphasised by the recognition that we have each been created in the image of God (Genesis 1:26).  We sometimes find what may be interpreted as a call to individuals within a collective, as in Isaiah 43:1: 'But now, this is what the Lord says - he who created you, O Jacob, he who formed you, O Israel: "Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have summoned you by name; you are mine"'.  The clear impression gained from the Bible is of a God who calls us into relationship both in a collective sense and in an individual sense.  One dimension is not swamped by the other.  So the reminders from Edward Murphy and from the Chief Rabbi about the individual personhood of members of groups that we tend to see in undifferentiated negative terms are calls for a Godly change of perspective.

How might such change be brought about?  Mr Murphy's Merseyside group tries to provide journalists with more complex, subtle and individual stories about asylum seekers in the locality, with the aim of breaking down the homogeneous, depersonalised category of 'asylum seekers' as it is currently used in the press.  Also, they take asylum seekers into local schools and try to counteract the media representations by showing children that asylum seekers are simply ordinary people fleeing persecution.  Yet, to counter prejudice effectively, what is probably required is sustained interaction in which people from different groups come to know each other as individuals and recognise what they have in common.

Psychologists have identified many factors that need to be addressed if prejudice against a group is to be combated, such as perceptions that the goals of one group are incompatible with the goals of another group and that if one group achieves its goals, this must be at the expense of the other group.  Countering such views in an effective and lasting way is a complex undertaking that will require a concerted, multi-faceted approach but, as people of faith who believe in a God concerned with justice, we are called to try.  Each of us can ensure that we become properly informed about the experiences of asylum seekers so that we can work within our own social contexts to resist crude, negative representations when we encounter them (even when we seem to be challenging 'what everybody knows'), break down the homogeneous category and emphasise the Divinely-crafted personhood of each and every individual seeking asylum in this country. f

Aidan Coyle is Senior Lecturer in the Department of Psychology at the University of Surrey and is involved in its Social Psychology European Research Institute.



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