The Portrayal of Immigrants: Flooded but not Blown Away?

The Portrayal of Immigrants: Flooded but not Blown Away?

Water as a metaphor is commonly used in immigration discourse – but why have we not yet seen a ‘refugee hurricane’ or an ‘asylum seeker storm’?

In the media, metaphors of water are often used in relation to issues of migration, and in particular the migration of asylum seekers. Terms like ‘floods’, ‘pouring’, ‘streams’ and ‘waves’ frequently appear in news reports and now belong to the vocabulary of anyone dealing with, or writing on, migration issues across the globe. Headlines include, for example, “Rescue fleets kept busy by migrant tidal wave”, “EU flooded with 1,000 asylum seeker applications EVERY day”, and “Wave of Kosovan migration sparks unease in European capitals”. Multiple new examples can be found on a daily basis, whether it be in the newspapers, on TV, or across the internet.

In contemporary scholarship, this development has not remained unnoticed. Indeed, various authors have pointed out the use of water as a metaphor in not only the media (see, for example, Van Dijk at 43-44) but also in political discourse (Santa Ana, 1997) and in parliamentary discussions (e.g. Van der Valk, 2003). As the latter author has asserted, such metaphors of water reinforce the belief that immigrants – and migratory movements in general – are a threat to the nation state and to sovereign control, since water is, as a liquid substance, difficult to both stop and contain. We have little grip on it since it simply pours through our hands, and whilst we can build walls and dams to contain it, there is always the possibility that the tide rises or the dam bursts – resulting in a massive flood.

At the same time, this ‘water’ metaphor has the effect of reducing our common understanding of influxes of migration to the rather narrow category of boat migrants. Indeed, not only does the media refer to rising tides and insurmountable waves of migrants, news reports on migration are also often accompanied by pictures of boats packed with migrants (examples can be found here, here, here and here). Such tendencies are not only to be found in the media but also in political discourse: in the Netherlands, for example, the largest coalition party (the ‘VVD’) has drafted a proposal to reform European immigration policies, thereby solely focusing on those migrants arriving by boats in the Mediterranean. ‘Plane migrants’, on the other hand, are almost completely ignored both in the news and in political and public discourse, notwithstanding the fact that for example in the Australian context, the number of refugee applicants who arrived by plane in 2008 was 32 times higher than the number of refugee applicants who arrived by boat. The former category in fact comprised 96% of all refugee status applications in Australia. In many other countries, including across Europe and Northern America, migration by air likewise constitutes a major route of immigration. Nowhere, however, do we see the metaphoric use of ‘air’ terminology – indeed, according to the media’s silence on the issue, the first ‘refugee hurricane’ has still to occur. This blog by no means advocates such an alternative discourse, but given the empirical reality it remains odd that references to ‘water’ still trump any ‘air’ metaphor.

In addition, it is interesting to notice that ‘water’ metaphors are also commonly used in countries without sea borders. For example, in explaining its decision to suspend EU regulations that require an asylum seekers’ claim to be processed in the EU country where they first arrive, a spokesman for the Hungarian government stated that “the boat is full”. Likewise, the Hungarian President recently outlined that new legislation is needed to “keep out a wave of immigrants from poor countries”. The fact that Hungary is fully landlocked and asylum seekers either come by land or by air does not seem to be important: the language of unstoppable waves and crowded boats seems to be used to express danger, urgency, and the necessity to act. Similar tendencies have been discerned in the Austrian political context, which is likewise a landlocked country. As such, the terminology of water appears to have gained a prominent position in the way we speak about migration in contemporary global reality.

But something else seems to be going on here. It is not merely that the language of water conveys a message of danger and urgency, but more specifically this message concerns a very particular group of migrants. As mentioned above, many immigrants – including asylum seekers – arrive by plane. However, a certain group of immigrants is not able to do so, mainly because carrier sanction legislation (which has been adopted in a variety of countries) obliges airlines to pay all the expenses for returning a person without proper documentation that it has brought to the country. In short, transporting an individual without a valid visa may result in significant costs for an airline company, thereby creating an incentive for such companies not to transport anyone without proper documentation – even if he or she wants to apply for refugee status in the country of destination. As such, the balance is in favour of those migrants that are able to obtain a visa whilst it is considerably disadvantageous for those who cannot. This latter group, often comprising individuals from low-income countries, is subsequently reliant on migration by boat as their only means to reach the destination country. To speak about migration by boats, then, is to speak about this specific sub-set of migrants: a group that governments are not eager to receive.

What can we deduce from this? At the very least, it is important to understand that language is not a neutral reflection of the world and potentially has a significant impact on our understanding of reality. It continuously operates as a potential tool of power, since it provides for the opportunity to express a certain dominant system of beliefs whilst underemphasizing alternative readings. Whoever uses language therefore is to a very large extent able to shape the debate by using particular words, metaphors, and connotations. As Brouwer & Van der Leun put it in an earlier blog, ‘[t]he media plays an important role when it comes to communicating constructs to the public, and the discursive element of media content largely shapes how people perceive certain issues’. In light of the central topic of the Leiden Law Blog this Summer, ‘freedom’, it is thus important to remember that language and discourse to a large extent shape our imaginations of reality, attach meaning to political and public discussions, and inform policy making. Whether or not an asylum seeker can reach ‘freedom’ in the form of an asylum application, then, often depends on the way he or she is both framed and regarded in media, political rhetoric and/or public discussions, which all have the potential to influence policy making on the issue. From this perspective, discourse is thus not only shaped by the socio-political context: rather, the socio-political context is simultaneously formed by what is said, written and discussed in the discourse.

In the immigration context, by continuously using ‘water’ metaphors, the issue thus becomes one of water – and therefore of boat migrants. Whilst this does not necessarily align with empirical reality, the image provided through discourse and language is persuasive. Undesired immigrants, and in particular asylum seekers and refugees, are thus often reduced to those arriving by boat or, more concretely, those who cannot obtain a visa and as such cannot arrive by plane. This has enabled the language of water and boats to also become firmly established in immigration discourses in landlocked countries, whilst it has simultaneously left migration by air largely out of public discussions. While destination countries are thus, according to dominant strands of public discourse, swamped and flooded by tidal waves, no refugee storm has broken as of yet – at most, a significant sea breeze has been noted.


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