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Rivers and swarms: how metaphor fuels anti-immigrant feeling

Here they come… johndal via Flickr, CC BY

In a recent interview with Sky News, the UK defence secretary, Michael Fallon, described British towns and communities as “swamped” by migrants, a controversial phrase he was later forced to retract. And while it’s easy enough to dismiss this as a sad glimpse into a politician’s personal views, Fallon’s language fits right into a rhetorical war that’s been waged on immigrants for decades.

The language used by politicians to depict migrants obviously influences public opinion – which, as surveys suggest, currently demonstrates high levels of opposition to immigration even though public perceptions of immigration figures are often inaccurate and exaggerated.

Immigrants are often accused of a range of pernicious activities, frequently with little or no evidence: abusing and straining welfare services, endangering public health, driving up crime, taking jobs from the local workforce and causing wage deflation, placing additional strains on housing, killing and eating swans, and generally jeopardising the well-being, culture and values of host societies.

But it is the careful and calculated use of metaphor, as in Fallon’s statements, that turns this shopping list of accusations into a visceral, emotive political appeal – and then, all too often, into actual policy.

Dog whistles

There are a lot of ways to go about this, of course. For decades, politicians on both sides of the British political spectrum have used fluid metaphors to associate immigration with disaster. From Enoch Powell’s infamous 1968 Rivers of Blood speech to Margaret Thatcher’s 1978 statement that “people are really rather afraid that this country might be rather swamped by people with a different culture”, we have heard decades of warnings that we’re being flooded, deluged and drowned by waves of migrants.

Another reliable theme is the military metaphor – “invasion” and “siege” – which tie migrants into more typical ideas of what security means. References to insects (“swarms”) or disease (“epidemic” or “plague”), on the other hand, are a surefire way to dehumanise migrants and exclude them from the host community.

Around the world, metaphors such as these are a vital political tool for those advocating restrictive immigration regulations. And their power is evident in the vocabulary used for the policies their users advocate and implement.

Huge sums of money are spent “securing” borders, whether by the construction of physical barricades, militarised technological security apparatus for maritime and border surveillance, attempts to “Stop the Boats”, or dubious attempts to pressure migrants to “go home”.

Dark days

But even as migrants are described in outrageously sensationalist terms, the number of migrants around the world has remained relatively modest and constant. Recent data from the UN estimates a population of 232m migrants worldwide, up from an estimated 175m in 2000 and 154m in 1990 – but although the actual numbers have increased, this represents a consistent 3% proportion of the world population.

With the UK’s 2015 general election campaign ramping up and the ongoing furore over freedom of movement across the EU, we can expect to hear more and more provocative language from British politicians, with little recourse to hard evidence.

The outrage at Michael Fallon’s words suggests it may be time for politicians to be a bit more wary of this sort of rhetoric; after all, much of the electorate is wise to the language used to stir up fear of migrants.

But then again, as the rise and rise of UKIP and the attendant bandwagon-jumping shows, these insidious metaphors still work for plenty of people – and will continue to work for some time to come.

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