This is the opening of my latest COMPAS blog post. You can read the whole thing here.
The media monitoring project at the Migration Observatory has analysed thousands of UK news articles on migration from the last few years, showing which words are most often associated with migrants – and the same finding was repeated more recently specifically for Romanians and Bulgarians arriving in 2014. One finding was how often, across both tabloids and broadsheets, words suggesting water were used as a metaphor for migration, such as flood, influx and wave. In one recent example, Michael Fallon, a Conservative minister, echoing Margaret Thatcher in the 1970s, described “whole towns and communities” in the UK “being swamped by huge numbers of migrants.”
Fallon particularly mentioned England’s East Coast, and his comment was made as two coastal constituencies switched their votes to the anti-immigrant UKIP. It is interesting that it is in coastal areas where anti-migrant sentiment – the feeling of being swamped and flooded by migrants – is strongest. Oddly, though, these coastal areas typically have some of the lowest numbers of migrants in the UK.
Many of these coastal areas, however, face a very different and very real flooding risk. Research shows that our coastal areas are vulnerable to climate change because of rising sea levels and wave heights and accelerated coastal erosion. The deprived and “left behind” seaside communities which UKIP is targeting may be especially vulnerable because of their reliance on the coastline for economic and social activities, because of ageing populations, deprivation and isolation, which negatively impact on resilience and hamper adaptation.
These issues are hard to think about; many of us tend to bury our heads in the sand rather than face up to the enormity of the challenge of climate change. Perhaps thinking about immigrants is easier.
But for many communities globally, the flooding has already long begun.
The photographer Alessandro Grassani, in his work Environmental Migrants: The Last Illusion, has produced extraordinary images of Bangladesh, which give some hint of an idea of what it might be like to be flooded: to live life knee-deep in water, to earn your livelihood beneath the rising sea level, to have the waves literally at your door.