Speech given at the launch of a new guide for journalists on reporting on refugee issues.

I came into journalism relatively late. In early 2000, I found myself in Angola in Southern Africa, as an aid worker with an Irish NGO, where the main focus of our work was the people displaced by the Angolan civil conflict. When I came home, in 2002, and started writing, one of the aspects of Irish life that had changed most notably while I was away, and which I found most interesting, was demographics, and I gradually started to cover this as a journalist, initially with Village Magazine and, more recently, freelance.

I’ve covered various insidious aspects of the asylum system, such as the iniquities of the Refugee Appeals Tribunal, the situation of unaccompanied minors, the disappearance of children from HSE hostels, and the direct provision system. I’ve also covered the exploitation of migrant workers and the denial of full rights to immigrant married couples.

It can be tempting, covering these areas – particularly when meeting people whose lives have been terribly damaged through their suspension in the limbo of the Irish system – to be overwhelmingly negative about that system.

More recently, however, I spent some time on the canvass with immigrant participants in the local elections. Just three were elected but, more importantly, 40 or so put their heads above the parapets and announced that they believed their communities were worth representing, and that they could and should participate in Irish politics. And wearing another hat, I spend a lot of time at the theatre, and there I’ve seen further evidence of cultural integration and enrichment.

Despite the injustices and some desperately sad stories, I think the Irish experience of immigration and demographic change in the last ten to 15 years has been very positive, for both sides. I think the Irish state, and the people as whole, n the media have done pretty well. I think it’s important to acknowledge that. It could be a lot worse. It’s a lot worse elsewhere. Acknowledging the positive is an important part of fighting to make sure it doesn’t get worse here.

Reporting on asylum and immigration issues has its own challenges and its own rewards. It is a great privilege to be invited into people’s homes, and to have them tell their life stories. Because there are many amongst immigrant communities who lack a voice in Irish society, or feel excluded from public discourse, and because there are many injustices being suffered by people, there is the potential to do journalism that actually impacts upon people’s lives in a tangible, positive way. On the other hand, issues that are often tricky for journalists – making contacts, getting access, gaining confidence, verifying information – can be even more so when dealing with people with whom you don’t share a first language, or cultural norms, as may be the case…

On a sheer practical level, this area of reporting can be slow, and difficult to fit into the hectic schedule and overbearing expectations of a news desk. Add to that the challenge of dealing with a chronically secretive and unaccountable bureaucratic-judicial system.

But on the whole, I don’t think this area of reporting is fundamentally any different from any other area where you’re dealing with issues of legal and emotional sensitivity. Treat everybody with respect, but don’t be credulous towards anybody. Make your own contacts. Don’t rely on mediators, though they can be invaluable. Be wary of received language. Avoid jargon, and clichés. Allow people to speak for themselves. Be precise. Seek detail. Strive for balance. Be clear about the difference between on and off the record. Interrogate. Don’t sentimentalise. Lastly, don’t reduce people to ‘victims’.

Bisi Adigun and Roddy Doyle recently rewrote ‘The Playboy of the Western World’, to feature a young man arriving in Dublin from Nigeria in the central role. He walks into a pub in West Dublin, and starts rumours flying. One of the locals refers to him as a “refugee”, but another corrects him – clearly, if this man has just arrived, he must be an “asylum seeker”.

There is a crucial, legal distinction between the terms refugee and asylum seeker, and the joke Bisi and Roddy were making was that Ireland had become so au fait with these terms that any auld fella in a pub would know the difference. That’s perhaps a good thing. It perhaps reflects a growing awareness of these issues amongst the media, and a more accurate treatment of them.

But there is a deeper resonance of the term ‘asylum seeker’, and it’s an example of how language works to shape people’s perceptions of reality, not just describe them.

When I worked in humanitarian aid in Angola, the word we habitually used to describe the people we were trying to help was ‘beneficiaries’. ‘How many beneficiaries does your project have?’ somebody might ask. We thought it was a neutral, factually accurate way to describe those people, like the number of ‘passengers’ on a train. But it wasn’t. It is a deeply ideological term, which suggests that the native population of a poor country inherently benefits from the interventions of the charity of a rich country.

‘Asylum seeker’ is something similar. In legal terms, it is a way of describing the place one has within the system. But the deeper meaning of the term is reflected in the way these people are treated in the system: their nature is defined by the fact that they are ‘seeking’ something – they are cast as mendicants, dependent on the largesse of the system and the state that has the power to award asylum or refuse it.

This is reflected in a real sense in the recently revealed circular from the Department of Justice to accommodation centres for asylum seekers, prohibiting political activity or canvassing in the centres – implying that asylum seekers need protection from politics, when in fact what some, at least, want, is more participation in politics.

It’s difficult to know what to do about this precise linguistic issue as a journalist. If I’m reporting on a hunger strike by a man from Iraq, say, who has been refused asylum, do I start my report by referring to ‘an Iraqi asylum seeker’, or to ‘a hunger striker from Iraq, who has sought asylum here’, or to ‘a member of the Iraqi opposition who was refused asylum in Ireland’?

Words matter. And the words that matter most in an article are the words you start with. Is there a way of reporting on his actions, and his predicament, without casting him as the helpless seeker of our sympathy? Because, though there may be some truth in that portrayal, it is never the full truth.

So, how can your use of language, as a journalist, both avoid perpetuating the alienation and marginalisation of people in the asylum system, and present the story vividly and coherently to the public?

More generally, when investigating or reporting on perceived injustices or abuses within the system, how can you do so in ways that do not sentimentalise the people involved, that recognise their agency as well as their problems? Or in other words: when is somebody a survivor, or even simply an individual, and not simply a victim?

Treading that fine line is perhaps the key challenge in reporting on asylum issues, and I have been privileged to be guided around it by various people who have come to live here.

This is the text of a speech delivered at the launch of the guide, published by the NUJ, the Irish Refugee Council and UNHCR at the European Parliament office in Dublin on Friday, June 19. See Carol Coulter’s report in the Irish Times.