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The changing portrayal of migrants: from the political to the humanitarian. A case study of two migrants' rights organisations in Spain and Britain

Borkum, S. (2018). The changing portrayal of migrants: from the political to the humanitarian. A case study of two migrants' rights organisations in Spain and Britain. (Unpublished Doctoral thesis, City, University of London)


The portrayal of migrants in Spanish and British media and political discourse has been the focus of much recent academic study and is largely concerned with negative images. Where positive or sympathetic portrayals have been examined, they alert us to pitfalls: compassion aroused by the portrayal of migrants as victims is a double-­‐edged sword because victims need an external agent to empower them and, therefore, are deprived of their own agency. The image of the ‘passive’ and ‘rightless’ migrant has been counteracted by literature that portrays migrants as ‘political activists’ mobilising to demand legalisation of their immigration status. This portrayal of the ‘activist migrant’ can be viewed as ‘utopian’ whereby migrants are transformed into a new historical subject for social change and, as such, become the site for the projection of political hopes and desires.

This study focuses on an area of research that has received little attention – how migrants’ rights organisations portray migrants. Two organisations provided the research sites for the case studies: Sevilla Acoge, based in Seville, Spain, and Praxis, based in London, Britain. As demonstrated in this thesis, both of them were strongly influenced by the radical leftist ideas of liberation theology. The thesis argues that over a period of approximately thirty years (from the 1980s to the early 2010s) the portrayal of migrants shifted from a political to a humanitarian framing. More specifically, it shows that these changing portrayals reflected shifts in the organisations’ values and expressed a sense of disappointment in the politics of the past that had aimed to change society through collective political action.

This cross-‐country, comparative and longitudinal study uses a mixed-­‐ methods approach to investigate the changing portrayals of migrants. The case studies illustrate the consequences of the humanitarian trumping the political approach to migrants’ rights and the implications of this for the possibilities of political action and empowerment.

Publication Type: Thesis (Doctoral)
Subjects: H Social Sciences > HM Sociology
H Social Sciences > HT Communities. Classes. Races
Departments: Doctoral Theses
School of Policy & Global Affairs > Sociology & Criminology
School of Policy & Global Affairs > School of Policy & Global Affairs Doctoral Theses
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