UK immigration and asylum – it’s a minefield and getting tougher

credit: UNHCR

Last week I did a talk on what it’s like to report on UK immigration and asylum. There’s been a bit of interest in it, so I thought I’d take you behind-the-scenes, too. Topline: it’s like navigating a minefield – and it’s getting tougher. Here’s how.

I worked for the Home Office during the rollout of the hostile environment policy, and, while we were encouraged to pre-empt and intervene before unfavourable coverage was published, Priti Patel’s hard-line stance is on an entirely different level.

Now, more than ever before, the Home Office is much, much more bullish towards journalists. I’m not alone in that view. When I talk to others who work on this brief, they say their stories are frequently killed, and they have to push hard against attempts to disrupt publication.

I came across this most recently when I wrote this report. While getting a right to reply from the Home Office, they insisted we sent them the report or they wouldn’t comment. It took eight people three days to push the piece through to publication.

When I was writing up this report last week the Home Office tried to get me to reveal the details of my source “for internal purposes”. I was speaking to a highly vulnerable contributor who was terrified about the idea of sharing her information with them.

We regularly find that stories like this lead directly to an asylum claim being granted (in this instance, four days after publication). That can’t be right. It shouldn’t take a piece in a paper, on tele or radio to secure someone’s future in this country.

So dealing with the Home Office is time-consuming, frustrating and often very technical. BUT there’s the other side of the picture, which is very often illuminating, insightful and interesting – and that’s speaking to contributors.

We should always be careful to protect the identities of those we speak to, and we have a duty of care to ensure they have support in place before, during and, crucially, after interview. This doesn’t always happen.

I’m working with the University of Oxford Centre for Criminology on an ethical migration guide, and there has been a lot of great work in this space by Migration Observatory and elsewhere – but journalists need to be careful, and sometimes they’re not. That can be detrimental to someone’s claim.

I think that’s, in part, because there aren’t many journalists in the UK reporting consistently on these issues. We saw with Rwanda that newsrooms parachute in reporters to cover headline stories. Without the background knowledge, that can lead to dubious or inaccurate reporting.

These issues are fast-moving, highly detailed and they’re complex. They’re complex for a reason – because it gives the government wiggle room, amid the confusion. That can make it difficult to sell these stories to editors.

Compassion fatigue, refugee fatigue – whatever you want to call it – sways how much resource is put behind a piece. It can mean we stay on an issue for a shorter period than we’d like, or can’t report in as much depth, and there’s a great deal lost in that.

Where editor’s lack appetite, for me, it always goes back to the voices of those affected by policies, because there are two types of stories: policy and people, and I’d argue every story should have both because…

…it’s our job as journalists to give humanity back, when a department or an individual attempts to strip that humanity away. It’s our job to say “Look, here’s a real person, whose life has been destroyed by this piece of legislation.”

But I’m still optimistic – and there’s cause to be. People are breaking ranks and speaking out like never before, with Home Office officials and those across immigration functions taking a stand. That gives me heart.

What journalists do well – and have always done well – is take the mood music from the general public, give agency to contributors and hold power to account. It’s crucial we stay across these stories and give a voice to those affected, even when the headlines move on.

Originally tweeted by Nicola Kelly (@NicolaKelly) on 20/06/2022.