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Stories about channel crossings, immigration and asylum have been appearing more frequently in the British media since the beginning of the war in Syria. But it is not just the wars that prompt people to leave their countries - some run away from natural disasters, others seek to escape an authoritarian regime. Sometimes, people are looking for a better life abroad.

Reporting on immigration and asylum is often event-driven, like in the case of the death of 27 people in the English Channel two weeks ago. But these stories are as emotional as they are political and they often provoke strong reactions among the readers, which makes their coverage a minefield for journalists.

Migrant, asylum seeker, refugee

"There is never going to be a perfect set of terms to talk about this," says Daniel Trilling, a freelance journalist who has been covering the migrants for over a decade and who wrote the book "Lights in the Distance".

His advice is to be as precise as possible about the background of the people we are reporting on: who they are, where are they travelling from and provide some context, explaining why that may be.

When it comes to those who cross the channel, journalists call them migrants, refugees, asylum seekers, clandestine or illegal immigrants, often interchangeably. But these terms mean different things and incorrect language further muddles the reality.

A migrant is simply someone who moves away from the country where they usually live to another country.

The term refugee is much more specific: the 1951 UN convention defines it as someone who cannot return to their country of origin because of "a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion."

An asylum seeker is someone who applies for refugee status in a country where he or she has arrived and is waiting for a decision on their case.

There are many reasons why a migrant can be "illegal", like not having a valid visa or working without authorisation. But asylum seekers cannot be penalised for entering a country without a visa or valid travel documents since their circumstances often force them to leave suddenly or via illegal routes. This principle is also anchored in the UN Refugee Convention, to which the UK has signed up.

When it comes to people who cross the channel, it is hard to use a blanket term because we do not have a regular feed of official data on how many then seek asylum in the UK. But the director general of UK Visas and Immigration, which is part of the Home Office, said that of the 5,000 crossings in 2020, 98 per cent of those who made it to the UK claimed asylum.

Further data from the Home Office show that most people who undertook the dangerous journey across the channel in the past few years were from Iran, Iraq, Syria, Yemen and Sudan. All these countries are either plagued by armed conflicts or actively persecute certain groups of people.

Are people attracted by the UK welfare and asylum system?

Stories often revolve around migrants seeking to come to the UK to take advantage of the country’s generous welfare system and its soft touch on asylum.

In Trilling’s experience, this is not true. Although there are as many stories as there are people, reasons to seek asylum in the UK are more often linked to family connections, routes that people follow to find a safe place to live, and the fact that they can speak English.

"The UK is a former imperial power that has got all of the connections with the former colonies all around the world. It is a country of migration. For me the weakness is to do with the way that this stuff is framed," he says, adding that patchy foreign reporting and reactive covering of tragedies is not enough to help people understand the stories behind migration.

Reporting on trauma

There are risks for journalists covering channel crossings as well, both for their physical safety and mental health. Witnessing human tragedy and speaking to people who may be traumatised themselves is hard, plus you also need to consider the distress they are going through.

The risks are often higher for freelance journalists who do not benefit from the support offered by news organisations. If you are reporting on migration and channel crossings, you can do some training with organisations like Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma or Trauma Work.

Professional training will help you protect yourself from or deal with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), vicarious trauma that results from empathetic engagement with trauma survivors, and you can also learn interview techniques for trauma reporting.

Finally, Trilling advises to keep a good line between journalism and charity or aid work.

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