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Race, ethnicity and culture

Beyond borders

Alastair Nightingale, Simon Goodman and Sam Parker seek more prominence for psychological perspectives on the refugee crisis in Europe.

28 April 2017

Against the backdrop of the humanitarian tragedy unfolding in the waters of the Mediterranean and refugee camps around the world, psychologists and other social scientists must ask themselves whether their discipline can offer any answers. For example, why do politicians and citizens in at least some Western countries find it difficult to welcome those fleeing warfare or persecution? What kinds of problems are encountered by refugees once they have been given permission to settle temporarily or permanently in a new culture? How are these issues represented in the media and everyday discourse?

We as psychologists have not always been effective in explaining how our research is relevant to this issue, yet these are all phenomena that clearly have a psychological component. Here, we attempt to showcase some of the ways that psychology can help us to understand the refugee crisis.

Putting integration back on the agenda

Whilst Europe has been described as being in the midst of a 'refugee crisis', the question of whether the UK can also be said to be experiencing a crisis is much more open to debate. Where Germany has taken one million refugees, in the UK the government's response has been to commit to resettling just 20,000 Syrian refugees by 2020 and thus far only a fraction of that number have arrived in the UK (5454 up until the end of December 2016). Indeed, the idea of punitive measures aimed at deterring asylum seekers from coming to the UK is not new, with the phrase 'hostile environment' being dropped into speeches and briefing papers at least as far back as the New Labour years.

In the midst of a 'refugee crisis', one might assume that integration would be a priority for the UK government. The government has long espoused a commitment to migrant integration, despite it never being a significant priority for them. Indeed, although acknowledging that integration experiences can occur whilst waiting for a decision on an asylum application, the UK government has taken the position that integration should not begin until refugee status is granted and a long-term future in the UK can be planned for. Successful integration is further undermined before refugees even set foot on European soil by the proliferation of derogatory discourse within public debate.  

Research in acculturation has tended to follow Thomas and Znaniecki's century-old approach of seeing the minority culture as one that can be retained or abandoned, and the dominant culture as one which can be adopted or rejected. Berry's classic 2005 taxonomy of assimilation, integration, separation, and marginalisation as the most widely cited typology of acculturation. Yet many researchers have shown that some forms of acculturation are socially or psychologically beneficial and others problematic. A strategy of integration, where individuals are facilitated to maintain ties with their ethnic group and form new ties with the dominant group, is the preferred strategy (Berry et al., 2006; De Leersnyder et al., 2011).

However, the concept of integration has been treated with suspicion by some minority communities and anti-racist movements, who have raised concerns about integration being too close to, or a path to, assimilation. Similarly, we can question whether refugees are actually able to choose an acculturation strategy: we must consider not only refugees' experiences, but also the policy context and discursive environment within which acculturation is situated. There is certainly a clear space for psychologists and policy specialists to work together to better understand the acculturation experiences of those refugees coming to the UK, to ensure that integration is put firmly back on the agenda.

Research has shown that many refugees and asylum seekers do struggle to integrate, are vulnerable to psychosocial stress, and have few acculturation strategies open to them. This was particularly so when dispersal of asylum seekers to towns and cities outside London was introduced following the 1999 Immigration and Asylum Act. This remains a particularly pertinent concern at a time when the Syrian Vulnerable Persons Resettlement Scheme will see Syrian refugees resettled in areas of the UK that have no experience of refugee resettlement. In such cases, then, a strategy of marginalisation may be the only one readily available to refugees and consequently increase the acculturative stress felt. This may be in addition to pressures felt around the uncertainty of their asylum application (being required to defend their story, having to report regularly to the Home Office or a police station, and living with the threat of detention). What is needed is a more balanced discussion around asylum seekers and refugees in the UK, one in which wellbeing is given greater concern.

Erecting the barricade – public and media debates 

As psychologists we have a role to play in understanding not only the acculturative experiences of refugees, but also the pubic, media and political discourses that define the refugee crisis. Such discourse has been proven to impact the wellbeing and treatment of refugees and asylum seekers. For example, constructing immigrants as a group (whether they are migrants, refugees, or asylum seekers) tends to encourage the perception that 'their' interests, values and traditions are competing with 'ours'. As psychologists, we know that this competitive vision stimulates negative emotions, such as fear, and negative attitudes, in the form of prejudice.

Arguing against supporting refugees can be a difficult thing to do, because this can risk presenting the speaker as an uncaring person who is unwilling to help people who are in need of humanitarian support. This means that those who argue against asylum seekers and refugees need to make their case while also presenting themselves as pleasant and caring. One way to make these arguments is to suggest that refugees and asylum seekers are not really who they claim to be at all, and that they are coming to the UK for financial gain. This implies that asylum seekers tend to be 'bogus' rather than 'genuine' (Lynn & Lea, 2003), and hence all asylum seekers come to be doubted.

Other economic arguments are used against refugees and asylum seekers, one being that the UK should address the needs of British people ahead of those of refugees and that 'charity begins at home'. A related argument is that the presence of too many refugees can be damaging to social cohesion. These arguments make the speaker appear to advocate a positive position whilst making an argument against providing sanctuary for refugees.

These argumentation strategies work to demonise people seeking asylum, by both distinguishing and conflating people fleeing war and persecution with immigrants more generally (e.g. Goodman & Speer, 2007). This division has become entrenched in public and media discourse, where it is constructed as rational and natural due to a commonsense understanding of limited resources (Capdevila & Callaghan, 2008). The economic migration argument was even deployed by Nigel Farage when defending UKIP's controversial 'Breaking Point' Brexit poster, despite the lack of ambiguity in the image of refugees fleeing the Syrian civil war. And it is not just Farage who linked the refugee crisis with the Brexit debate; research conducted at Coventry University (Goodman & Narang, in preparation) indicates that members of the public drew upon the crisis as a reason to leave the EU.

Clearly, employing categories within talk is not simply a means to simplify a complex social world but is politically motivated (Potter & Wetherell, 1987). The ensuing prejudice cannot be explained away by the traditional argument that limited cognitive resources incites people to formulate incorrect assumptions of others due to stereotypical overgeneralisation: social categories are purposefully constructed to demarcate the power relationship between the dominant and subjugated. However, this premise also acknowledges flexibility: people can at times reject categorical distinctions and derogatory definitions, and display tolerance.

Drawing on these ideas, Goodman et al. (2017) addressed the ways that the 'crisis' was presented in UK media over a year, from April 2015. They demonstrated that a number of different names were given to the crisis, starting with 'Mediterranean migrant crisis', becoming the 'Calais migrant crisis' and then 'Europe's migrant crisis'. They show that although the location of the crisis changed over this period, it remained focused on 'migrants'. This changed when pictures of Alan Kurdi, a three-year-old Syrian boy who drowned in the Mediterranean, made global headlines. At this point, public discourse briefly shifted away from derogatory categorisations towards the more sympathetic category of 'refugee', perhaps because attention was drawn so explicitly to the human cost of the current border regime. However, this positive representation of refugees did not last long. The terrorist attacks in Paris in November 2015 soon came to be linked (baselessly) with the refugee crisis, which quickly reverted back to being a 'migrant' one, from which point the focus of the debate has returned to being about how to prevent access.

Sympathy and rhetoric

While this positive period of the 'refugee' crisis was short-lived, there was nevertheless a large outpouring of sympathy for refugees. Nightingale et al. (2017) examined how far such sympathy extended in public debate in Ireland, drawing on a national phone-in radio programme over a six-month period from the beginning of August 2015. The analysis focused on speakers who were sympathetic to those arriving at Europe's borders and specifically on those speakers who confronted the contentious issue of whether people should be offered sanctuary in Ireland.

Although sympathetic callers reported their response to the unfolding 'refugee crisis' as emotionally distressing, they found it problematic to advocate unconditional, inclusive political solidarity with the migrants. For example, one speaker was highly direct and accusatory as he pointed his finger at the audience and accused them of abnormal inhumanity if they did not share his emotional distress towards the 'refugee crisis'. But when it came to tentatively advancing a manifesto of inclusive political solidarity, his talk moved to a position of what he personally would recommend. He noticeably retreated from demanding that the audience should support him in this political position and avoided explicitly mentioning Ireland. Instead he ambiguously described how the refugees 'have to move west and west through Europe'.

Other speakers appeared to make the case that something needed to be done for the migrants, whilst keeping Ireland concealed as a place of refuge. There was an apparent tension between humanitarian values (which potentially called for political solidarity with the migrants), and the pervasive understanding that the world consists of bounded nations within which individuals belong to specific states (Billig, 1995). Hence, sympathy toward migrants was restricted as speakers stuck to the accepted moral imperative of present-day border regimes.

Sympathetic speakers did not display open hostility towards refugees, but it was apparent that their attempts to advocate political solidarity with the refugees was constrained and tentative. It appeared difficult for the speakers to promote a manifesto that acknowledged the rights of the refugees enshrined in international law. They deployed repertoires of sympathy and advocated helping, but rhetoric that questioned and potentially undermined the status quo appeared to be off limits.  

To summarise, rhetorical strategies are often employed to protect the speaker from accusations of being unduly harsh or uncaring, even while they advocate restrictions on refugees. However, public discourse and media representations can also shift with significant events, and at times sympathy towards refugees is also expressed. But sympathy can be short-lived, and its remit appears to be constrained by hegemonic discourses based on economic concerns and notions of the bounded nation state. As a result, sympathisers struggle to make significant political demands that would argue for the basic human rights of refugees and highlight the responsibilities of those who restrict their movement.

Justifying border regimes and constructing derogatory categorisations is an effective way to protect our position of power and privilege, but it also begs the question of how long we can continue to shut out the world. If increasing numbers of people are trapped between tyrant leaders, religious fundamentalism, and the barricades of the liberal West, the world might become an increasingly dangerous and hostile place (Reicher & Haslam, 2016).  

A more humane approach

Psychology plays an important part in public debate and policies. However, psychologists – even those whose work is applied and policy-relevant – are often seen as dealing with problems at the level of the individual. This means that for any event or phenomenon that has a collective or societal aspect (like migration), psychologists tend to be regarded as not having relevant expertise to offer. Yet many of us – including social psychologists, community psychologists and media psychologists – explicitly deal with issues that go beyond the individual; our interests and expertise lie in how people relate with and respond to others, especially as members of one social group relating to other social groups.

For example, although migrants are of course individuals, in policy and media terms they tend to be treated as a group, as a collective. This is also how they tend to be thought about by citizens: 'them', as opposed to 'us', with all the threatening implications that such a view of the world brings with it. However, there are times when the collective noun 'migrants' is supplanted by an event that forces us to reframe the issue as one that affects individuals. This was the case when photographs of three-year-old Alan Kurdi were widely circulated in newspapers in September 2015. Even newspapers such as the Daily Mail, not exactly renowned for having a pro-immigration stance, described the images as 'harrowing' and as 'highlighting the horrific human cost of the global migration crisis'. Unfortunately, the outpouring of sympathy, well-intentioned policy statements, and charitable donations that followed this event were quite quickly superseded by a more 'normal' state of affairs in which migrants were once again treated as a collective.

Public discourse strategically depicts people fleeing violence as questionable and problematic. Even when sympathy is clearly unavoidable it is fleeting, severely constrained and the ensuing political manifesto is weak. This unhealthy discursive environment evades our ethical responsibility as people who hold the opportunity to offer sanctuary. The intent is to prevent refugees from getting the support they so desperately need, and for those who manage to slip into Europe it significantly undermines the acculturation process (because they are ultimately viewed with suspicion). Hence a more humane approach is essential, one that acknowledges the experiences of the refugees and facilitates compassionate integration. Research into the acculturation process needs to continue in dialogue with policy makers and the voices of refugees, who are too often absent from the debate. It is also paramount that public and media discourse is critically monitored.

- Alastair Nightingale is at the University of Limerick

- Simon Goodman is at Coventry University

- Sam Parker is at Cardiff University

This article was written after a SPSSI-UK meeting on "The Current Migration Crisis in the EU", which took place in Cardiff on 30-31 August 2016. SPSSI-UK is a new development sponsored by the Society for the Psychological Study of Social Issues (SPSSI), to provide an independent arena for UK scientists who are committed to increasing the impact of social and behavioural science beyond academia and informing public policy and debate. For more information please visit


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