Dan Clayton looks at a rising tide of martial, dehumanising and manipulative metaphors over asylum seekers and migrants in the UK

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When, back in those halcyon days of January 2016, David Cameron stood up at Prime Minister’s Questions and accused Jeremy Corbyn of hanging around with a “bunch of migrants” in Calais, and supposedly telling them that “they could all come to Britain”, there was some discomfort about this apparent coarsening of discourse around immigration.

There was clearly something off about the use of the phrase “a bunch of…” that many people couldn’t quite articulate. It sounded vaguely derogatory but then using it to describe some flowers, bananas or grapes was hardly problematic. So, what was it about the phrase that set teeth on edge and activated many people’s offence sensors? 

Perhaps it’s the company that the expression keeps and how we, as language users, are primed to expect what follows.

Straight after Cameron’s words hit the headlines, I checked the British National Corpus (a huge digital database of language in use) to see if I could put my finger on why the expression felt wrong. For every reference to fruit, there was another reference to troublemakers; for every bunch of lads, friends or junior doctors, there was a bunch of morons, thieves or maniacs.

These collocates (literally, words that exist next to other words, that co-locate) are a clear sign that some expressions feel bad because they keep bad company. And as the old saying has it, go to bed with dogs and wake up with fleas.  

Fast forward another six years and we don’t really have to head off to a corpus to investigate the nuances of the language being used by Conservative frontbenchers to describe immigration.

In October 2022, the Home Secretary, Suella Braverman described the small boats crossing the Channel as “an invasion on our southern coast”: a metaphor so crass and bellicose that it went far enough beyond a dog whistle as to become a foghorn. You don’t need a very sensitive offence sensor to pick that message up…  

And if you’re feeling particularly strong-stomached, just venture online and have a look at the replies to almost any news story about small boat crossings, tweets from the RNLI about their work, or proposed changes to asylum policy and you’ll see how vicious and dehumanising much of the language is.

As Sian Norris highlighted in Byline Times, some of the language previously associated with the far-right has become normalised, in Parliament as well as beyond, and Savan Qadir noted the escalation of rhetoric used by Braverman and its potential impact.   

The Day Far-Right Hate was Normalised in the House

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Mobile Metaphors

Like so much language, context plays a huge part in how meanings are constructed and the timing of Braverman’s comments was extremely significant. Just a day before Braverman’s speech, a man had driven to a “migrant-processing facility” (a phrase worthy of some analysis in itself) near Dover, attacked it with firebombs and then apparently taken his own life.

Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that when leading politicians are using the language of war to talk about the movement of groups of people, some impressionable members of the public take them at their word and adopt a war footing, taking the supposed battle into their own hands and to the “invaders”. In a world where discourses of “replacement” have moved from the neo-nazi fringe to centre stage, it’s a dangerous rhetorical game to play and one that some have likened to a form of stochastic terrorism. 

But consider too the wider context of the times we’ve been living through where war metaphors (of which “invasion” is one) have been successfully used by leading politicians during the Covid-19 pandemic to mobilise the public against a deadly threat.  It’s a metaphor that works and leads to action in the real world. And that’s dangerous. 

Metaphors like this are not new and there’s nothing fundamentally wrong with metaphors themselves in the context of political discourse: they are often a very effective way of helping people conceptualise complex ideas in a way that makes sense.

We often see what linguists call a “target domain” – such as life (or even just a brief run of appearances on Strictly or X-Factor) – being described using a “source domain” such as a journey.  But the choice of metaphor is hugely important, not just because it reveals a great deal about the political stance and outlook of the person using it but because of the impact it can have on the listener and the ways in which it fits into the wider jigsaw of the culture wars being waged around us. 

Linguists have been looking closely at metaphor for a long time and many people beyond the field will no doubt have come across the ideas in George Lakoff and Mark Johnson’s seminal Metaphors We Live By, if not the 1980 book itself.  But some of the most recent work on metaphors for Covid (waves, spikes, tsunamis) and measures to use against Covid (including ways to describe the vaccination programme – roll-out, firefighting metaphors) carried out by Professor Elena Semino at Lancaster University suggests that they can be powerful tools for shaping public opinion.

As Semino observes, war metaphors can be excellent ways of mobilising collective public action in the face of a common enemy, and “increase people’s perceptions of problems as serious and urgent, and their willingness to modify their behaviours accordingly” but might lose their appeal later as the “war” drags on and combat fatigue sets in, even fostering resentment that “wartime” powers are being imposed for too long.

Equally, in work done by Semino and many others on the power of metaphor in discussing cancer and its treatment, the war metaphor has mixed reactions. On the one hand, it can lead some patients to feel that they haven’t fought hard enough – or can’t, in the face of such a cruel opponent – while on the other, it might lead some to feel energised about facing down an enemy. 

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Language Matters

When we start to look at the language used to describe migration, we can see the war metaphor front and centre among the ways that migrants are “othered”.

Words like horde, enemy and invasion (that one again) occur repeatedly. Dr Charlotte Taylor at the University of Sussex has used several corpora, including material from parliamentary debates and newspaper text, to explore this in her 2021 paper “Metaphors of Migration Over Time”, noting that many of the metaphors are “historically rooted and conventionalised”. In fact, some of the references she examines go as far back as 1820.  

It will probably come as no surprise that the mainstream (ie largely right-wing) press in the UK has hardly covered itself in glory over the last hundred years – take The Daily Mail’s 1938 headline “German Jews Pouring into This Country” as a case in point – but the patterns that Taylor observes do suggest some degree of variation over time. 

The “immigrants as water” framing that we see with words like pouring, wave and swamping (thank you to both Margaret Thatcher in 1978 and David Blunkett in 2002) suggests some form of inundation taking place and the movement of people being out of control.

Another key migration metaphor is that of animals, so nouns like swarm and flock (and the verbs associated with them) appear time and time again, adding a sense of agency, if not humanity, to the movement of people. It’s the same frame that Katie Hopkins infamously used when she described refugees as “cockroaches”. It’s still perhaps one step short of the war metaphor we’ve already seen, where migrants are cast as an enemy force to be repelled with deadly violence but it’s still pretty repugnant. 

Taylor also notes a pattern of migrants represented as objects or commodities across the language data she has analysed, and here we can see a recurrent picture of migrants as something to be used, traded and exploited, and – central to so much of the recent government discourse around migration – people to be trafficked as part of organised crime.

In her 2022 PhD thesis, Tamsin Parnell of the University of Nottingham notes that “migrants are constructed as victims, “evil traffickers” as villains, and “Britain’s Royal Navy, National Crime Agency and Border Force” as institutional heroes. This simplicity arguably deprives migrants of agency and obscures the multiple, complex reasons why a person might choose to travel to a European country through non-conventional routes.” 

But how does any of this matter? Surely getting hung up about a few words and phrases is not really going to do anyone any good when it’s political action that gets things done?

Well, language matters. We aren’t – as one particularly cynical commentator claimed – getting obsessed with “hurty words” but trying to unpick the values of the language that we use and that has been used before, and to find ways to describe the world around us.

Healthy, democratic societies need to be able to discuss migration: it’s been an everyday fact of life for millions of people for thousands of years and is likely to increase as parts of the world become uninhabitable due to climate collapse. But behind this language are people – both those on the move and those welcoming or rejecting them – and the conversations we need to have can’t be constructive until we think more carefully about the language we’re using and how it both represents and shapes the world around us. 

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