Attacks on Polish families living in the UK are strongly influenced by negative portrayals in the media, argues Alina Rzepnikowska.
Polish families in Belfast have suffered a series of attacks in recent week. A row of three Polish families’ homes was spray painted with messages telling the families to leave the city. Elsewhere in Belfast, a Polish family’s car was badly damaged in a stone throwing attack.
Sadly these are not isolated incidents. Yet it is now 10 years since Poland joined the European Union, leading to the most significant migration into the UK in the recent past.
Although – according to the 2011 census – Polish migrants constitute only 1% of the UK population, they have received a lot of attention in the British media and politics. The focus increased under the light of the European elections. A damaging discourse fuelled negative sentiment towards Polish migrants across the UK, sometimes manifested through hostility and violence.
Public opinion has been influenced by media representation of ethnic minorities, seeing them as a problem or a threat, rather than as contributors to the UK economy.
Past research demonstrated that the media “are able to define the public debate and to communicate essential contents of ethnic situation models that have a lasting effect on people’s social knowledge”. More recently, negative media representations of Polish migrants in Britain over a sustained period of time are likely to have shaped or reinforced unsympathetic attitudes.
The perception of Polish migrants in the UK is marked by ambivalence as they are often portrayed by some media and politicians as ‘us’ – white, European, Christians – but by others as ‘them’ – taking British jobs, benefits and exhausting local services. Before the economic decline, Polish migrants were praised for good work ethics and as cheap labour.
With the outbreak of the economic crisis in 2008, they increasingly become a soft target in the media and in political debate on immigration, although there is clear evidence of a positive impact on the UK economy. Negative representations of Polish migrants in the media and politics serve as a way to legitimise stereotypes and prejudice by framing immigration as a ‘problem’.
Daniel Kawczynski, the only MP of Polish origin in the UK, has argued that the increase in violence towards Poles was partly a result of media scapegoating. Kawczynski criticised the BBC for using Polish migration as a means of highlighting a broader issue of immigration. The Federation of Poles in Great Britain lodged formal complaints against the Daily Mail for news articles that treated Polish people negatively.
The media and politics mutually and inevitably influence each other. Immigration has been a key concern for voters and use of the ‘immigration card’ is not new in British politics. The growth of the right wing UK Independence Party (UKIP) shows how this card can be used successfully, and it has convinced many British people that the arrival of workers from other parts of Europe has negatively affected British workers.
UKIP’s popularity has helped push immigration to the top of the agenda for the major political parties. Ed Miliband has publicly apologised for Labour “getting it wrong” in government by not restricting the admission of low-skilled labour from Central and Eastern Europe. Earlier this year, David Cameron said the UK needs to change the way migrants can claim benefits and cut the number coming here to work, singling out Polish migrants for claiming child benefit for family members in Poland.
My interviews with Polish women in Manchester highlighted the powerful influence of the media in their affect on everyday encounters with the local population. Research participants identified the media’s negative portrayal of Polish migrants as one of the main factors destructively influencing perceptions of Polish migrants. The scapegoating of Polish people stirs populist sentiment and, as a consequence, severely damages the quality of their lives.
One research participant was brutally attacked in Manchester city centre, taking her months to recover. Another interviewee recounted everyday verbal abuse in her neighbourhood and described being treated as an ‘intruder’. She wishes she was black – to avoid being at the centre of negative attention.
In the past, there was conflict and tensions between the white British majority and non-white minorities, but today there are new tensions and new forms of racism. Although Polish migrants are white, they are often constructed as the unwanted ‘other’.
Yet, as Stephen Lawrence’s mother pointed out at a recent conference in Edinburgh, the issue of tackling racism against new migrants is largely overlooked in the UK. Attacks on the homes of Polish families living in Belfast have been taking place for months. Near my home, a Polish motorcyclist was recently attacked by a group of 15 men. After the attack he expressed his disappointment with how politicians negatively affect people’s attitude to immigration.
It has been easy for politicians to scapegoat Polish migrants to win votes in the European elections. But what this actually means is that underlying socio-economic inequalities within British society are being swept under the carpet.
The media has a responsibility to act responsibly when reporting on migration, presenting migrants as an integral part of society. It can then support and promote a coexistence that is to everyone’s benefit.