Boat full of refugees in the English Channel

November 4, 2022, by Brigitte Nerlich

Invasion as a metaphor

On 31 of October Suella Braverman, Home Secretary of the United Kingdom, said, according to Hansard, the official report of all Parliamentary debates: “The British people deserve to know which party is serious about stopping the invasion on our southern coast, and which party is not.” ‘Invasion’ is generally defined as the “action of invading a country or territory as an enemy”, or, figuratively, as a “harmful incursion of any kind, e.g. of the sea, of disease, moral evil, etc.” In the context of a speech about immigration, one can assume that the word ‘invasion’ was used figuratively.

This speech happened in the context of a discussion of rather disastrous conditions at a migrant processing centre in Kent, and a day after it had been fire-bombed by an individual suspected of holding far-right views. It was therefore not surprising that some commentators used the phrase ‘incendiary’ or ‘inflammatory language’ when reporting on Braverman’s speech in the House of Commons.

Invasion metaphors in the House of Commons

This made me think. How has the word ‘invasion’ been used in the House of Commons over time? I looked this up on Hansard. As you can see, between 1900 and now there were roughly three periods when the use of the word ‘invasion’ peaked: the 1940s, during the Second World War, the 1980s, during the Falkland Islands War, and 2022, during the Russian invasion of Ukraine – that’s the big spike at the end. Real invasions.

Graph charting use of the word invasion in House of Commons between 1900 and 2022

Use of the word ‘invasion’ in the HoC, 1900-2022

In contrast with these uses of ‘invasion’ in the literal sense, on 31 October 2022 the word was used in a metaphorical sense.

Invasion metaphors and crime

Suella Braverman continued her statement in the House of Commons in the following way: “Some 40,000 people have arrived on the south coast this year alone. For many of them, that was facilitated by criminal gangs; some of them are actual members of criminal gangs, so let us stop pretending that they are all refugees in distress. The whole country knows that that is not true. It is only Opposition Members who pretend otherwise. We need to be straight with the public. The system is broken. [Interruption.] Illegal migration is out of control, and too many people are more interested in playing political parlour games and covering up the truth than solving the problem. I am utterly serious about ending the scourge of illegal migration, and I am determined to do whatever it takes to break the criminal gangs and fix our hopelessly lax …asylum system. That is why I am in government, and why there are some people who would prefer to be rid of me”. (Italics added)

Here, the implication seems to be that migrants are criminals, or at least associating with criminals. In addition, Braverman also used the word ‘scourge’, which means, amongst other things, a “cause of (usually, widespread) calamity. Applied, e.g. to a cruel tyrant, a warrior, a war, a disease that destroys many lives.” This is a strong word, which, like ‘invasion’, is linked to war and death.

In a later comment, Braverman asserts that when using such language, she speaks “for the decent, law-abiding, patriotic majority of British people from every background who want safe and secure borders”. This type of talk divides and polarises people. It also stigmatises ‘the other’. Migrants are framed as invaders, criminals, a calamity and as posing a threat to decent, law-abiding, patriotic people.

And finally, in a later comment still, Braverman admonished Rachael Maskell (York Central) (Lab/Co-op) who pointed out that the “conditions at Manston [migrant processing centre] are clearly unsafe and inhumane”, for using “inflammatory language”, seemingly unaware that she had used such just language herself.

Invasion metaphors through history

Much research in cognitive linguistics and applied metaphor analysis has been devoted to studying how immigrants are conceptualised, for example, as invaders and criminals, as liquid/fluid/water (e.g. before Brexit as floods) as animals, e.g. parasites or cockroaches, as swarms (again before Brexit) and marauders, but also as weeds, pollutants or disease.

Used intentionally or unintentionally, such conceptualisations dehumanise people in a variety of ways, turning them into objects or animals, or depicting them as people that are morally inferior compared to others. Such framings evoke fear and anger and can be used to legitimise certain actions, which may include verbal or physical violence and abuse. This has been well documented in an article by Charlotte Taylor who examined a corpus of articles published in the London Times between 1800 and 2018.

The use of invasion, contamination and infestation metaphors when talking about immigration has, in fact, quite a long tradition, and can be observed in many countries around the world. The invasion metaphor in particular has played out again and again in American political discourse, as Ben Zimmer has shown in article for The Atlantic, and still plays an important role today. This started in the 1870s and led directly “to Congress passing the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, the first significant law ever to ban an entire national group from entering the country”. It also led to death and violence.

Invasion metaphors and the law

Interestingly, although such language appeared to be quite new in the UK’s House of Commons, such language seems to be a staple of US law.

In his article entitled “Alien Language: Immigration Metaphors and the Jurisprudence of Otherness”, Keith Cunningham-Parmeter claims that: “Throughout its immigration jurisprudence, the U.S. Supreme Court has employed rich metaphoric language to describe immigrants attacking nations and aliens flooding communities.” The article examines three dominant metaphors: “immigrants are aliens, immigration is a flood, and immigration is an invasion” and explains how “immigration metaphors influence not only judicial outcomes, but also social discourse and the broader debate over immigration reform”.

Resisting invasion metaphors?

Keith Cunningham-Parmeter proposes a better way to talk about immigration, namely “in terms of movement, work, and community, in contrast to existing legal metaphors that describe immigration in terms of danger, attack, and criminality”. The article was written in 2011 and since then the latter framing of immigration seems to have become the dominant one. Is it too late to resist this metaphorical framing?

There are some signs of resistance. After the Home Secretary used the metaphor, the Prime Minister of Albania has spoken out against it, and even The Times, a newspaper of a rather conservative persuasion, reported that “Senior Conservative MPs have warned that Suella Braverman risks fuelling support for far-right extremists after she described the Channel migrant crisis as an invasion”.

Others resist the metaphor not only on moral or political grounds, but on purely numerical grounds: “Madeleine Sumption, the director of the Oxford Migration Observatory, said: ‘This is not an invasion – it’s not an army. But if instead she is referring to the number of people coming, we can compare the figures to other countries and see that the numbers coming in to the UK are relatively manageable.'”

How immigration will be managed, depends not only making better, evidence-based, policies, but also on avoiding inflammatory and divisive language.

Image: ©Sandor Csudai / Behance Creative Commons migrant health issues




Posted in LanguageMetaphors