restricted access The Politics of Pests: Immigration and the Invasive Other
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The Politics of Pests:
Immigration and the Invasive Other

the united nations high commissioner for refugees (UNHCR) estimates that more than one million people crossed into Europe by sea in 2015. At least 3,700 of those attempting to enter drowned. The vast majority of these travellers were from the world's top 10 refugee-producing countries, including Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan. Like the apocryphal story about the Haitian slave revolutionaries who greeted the repressive French army by singing "La Marseillaise," so some people walking along the motorways of Hungary and Austria were carrying the European flag, as if to say "We share your respect for justice, freedom, and human rights, and here we are! We belong!"

This situation was labelled a "crisis," and the responses were schizophrenic. Widespread "Refugees Are Welcome" demonstrations were met with nationalist counterdemonstrations and fire-bombings. As autumn arrived amidst mutual recriminations of xenophobia and hypocrisy, Europe rebordered: checkpoints were instituted between Austria and Germany, Italy and France, Sweden and Denmark, Croatia and Austria, Macedonia and Greece. Thus the crisis brought into question not only the principles of asylum and free movement within the European Union, but also Europe's very idea of itself as a space of liberal values, freedom, moral equality, and human rights. As well as a migration crisis confronting Europe, what started to unfold was a European crisis confronting migrants: a multidimensional crisis of solidarity between member states, many of which are struggling with [End Page 7] austerity and rapidly diminishing state capacity. This crisis was effectively called out by migration (Kriss 2015).

The media coverage of these events and their consequences reflected these tensions. Hostility toward mobile people, concerns about security, and demands on resources collided with the unavoidably human face of catastrophe, and for a time negative responses were mitigated by the photograph of drowned toddler Alan Kurdi. This contradiction was encapsulated in an editorial in The Times of January 21, 2016: "compassion is the right response but unconditional welcome is the wrong way to express it."

The relation between media coverage, policy, and public opinion is highly complicated, particularly in cases that are depicted as some kind of "crisis." Press coverage is not a neutral mirror of public opinion, nor does it simply shape public attitudes—news organizations are businesses, concerned with building relationships with their readers rather than challenging their views. The relation between media, public attitudes, and policymaking is complex and mutually constitutive, and there is a growing interest in this triangular relation in the case of how migration and asylum are covered (Matthews and Brown 2012). This question has received more attention post-2015, and there continues to be considerable debate about the role of the media in the representation of migrants/refugees, and its relation to public opinion. Several studies were commissioned. The Ethical Journalism Network found that press coverage was fueling sensationalism, anxiety, and intolerance (White 2015), while research commissioned by the UNHCR found that representations of migrants as cultural or welfare threats were prevalent in several EU states.

The use of imagery and metaphor of natural disasters permeates the coverage of migration. The particular ways in which migrants are portrayed offer insights into the nature of popular anxieties about the foreigner as invasive other and clues as to the political responses that can help to counter these anxieties. One metaphoric trope that has emerged as particularly powerful in the coverage of the 2015 events is the migrant as invasive insect, a metaphor that has been deployed by politicians as well as press commentators and reporters. [End Page 8]


For over 20 years, the outsourcing of migration controls, agreements with source and transit countries, re-admission agreements, the creation of migration management policies and facilities in countries of origin, and so on have kept the consequences of war and global inequalities largely out of sight. European publics have been protected to a great extent from the practical reality of forced displacement and economic desperation that is now showing up on holiday beaches. In 2015 tourists began to complain about sharing beaches and pavements with homeless refugees: "It's really dirty and messy here now. And it's...