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Samuel Parker



Migration and Psychology

Samuel Parker, Cardiff University

In an increasingly globalised world the movement of people between countries has never been more politicised and is a topic that is rarely out of the media. The ‘refugee crisis’ in Europe and the movement of migrants in Central America towards the United States have dominated news coverage in recent years, with the political responses to these ‘crises’ also being heavily discussed. The ‘refugee crisis’ in Europe saw over 1 million refugees cross into Europe during 2015 alone, while an estimated 3,962 people died trying to make the journey (IOM, 2015). The political response to the ‘crisis’ varied across Europe with countries such as Germany opening their borders to refugees, whilst others erected fences in order to keep refugees out. Although in Europe this is perhaps less frequently spoken of in ‘crisis’ terms now, as psychologists we have a role to play in understanding such media and political discourses of migration because of the impact that they can have on the treatment and welfare of migrants.

Critical Discursive Psychologists in particular have investigated the way in which the media have used categories such as ‘migrant’, ‘refugee’ or ‘asylum seeker’ in the reporting of the ‘refugee crisis’ in Europe (e.g. Goodman et al., 2017). Such research has found that the more negatively-polarised category “asylum seeker” is frequently used to imply that these people fleeing war and persecution are “bogus” and therefore not “genuine refugees” (Lynn and Lea, 2003). Indeed, as I write this piece, the President of the United States has been reported as referring to the asylum system as a “sham” and asylum seekers as being like “UFC fighters”. This is of course despite the fact that the U.S. is a signatory to the UN Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees. Discursive Psychologists focus on this use of categorisation and the argumentation strategies employed by politicians, the media, and the public suggesting that such strategies work to demonise asylum seekers and to conflate them with other groups of immigrants more generally.

Psychologists also have a role to play in understanding the acculturative experiences of migrants. Acculturation has been a topic of interest to social and cross-cultural psychologists for over 100 years since the publication of Thomas and Znaniecki’s (1918) ‘The Polish Peasant in Europe and America’. Perhaps the most well-known model of acculturation is Berry’s (2005) taxonomy which posits four strategies available to acculturating individuals: integration, assimilation, separation, and marginalisation. Integration—where individuals seek to maintain aspects of their heritage culture and seek relationships with members of the receiving culture—is seen in this model to be the optimal acculturation strategy and the one that causes the least acculturative stress. However, the ability of the acculturating individual to choose a strategy of integration also rests on the degree to which the receiving country accepts difference and encourages such relationships. My own research (e.g. Parker, 2018) takes a critical discursive psychological approach to analyse the ways in which refugees and asylum seekers talk about integration in the UK. It highlights how participants in the research construct a sense of policy-imposed liminality and dehumanization due to the restrictions they face as a result of the UK government’s “hostile environment” policy for asylum seekers. As part of this policy, asylum seekers in the UK are dispersed around the country if they require accommodation and subsistence support, receive weekly support payments that are roughly half of what UK residents claiming welfare benefits are entitled and are unable to work in most cases. It has often been argued that this “hostile environment” policy seeks to deter asylum seekers from coming to the UK in the first place and also encourages asylum seekers whose applications for refugee status are unsuccessful to leave the country. However, insufficient attention is given to the psychological consequences of experiencing such a “hostile environment” and the impact that political and media discourses play in constructing the treatment of refugees and asylum seekers. As such, a much more humane approach is needed, in which refugees are treated with compassion rather than suspicion in order to facilitate less stressful acculturation experiences.


Berry, J. W. (2005). Acculturation: Living successfully in two cultures. International journal of intercultural relations, 29(6), 697-712.

Goodman, S., Sirriyeh, A., & McMahon, S. (2017). The evolving (re) categorisations of refugees throughout the “refugee/migrant crisis”. Journal of Community & Applied Social Psychology, 27(2), 105-114.

IOM (International Organisation for Migration). (2015). Irregular Migrant, Refugee Arrivals in Europe Top One Million in 2015: IOM.

Lynn, N., & Lea, S. (2003). A phantom menace and the new Apartheid': the social construction of asylum-seekers in the United Kingdom. Discourse & Society, 14(4), 425-452.

Parker, S. (2018). ‘Just eating and sleeping’: asylum seekers’ constructions of belonging within a restrictive policy environment. Critical Discourse Studies, 1-17.

Thomas, W. I., & Znaniecki, F. (1918). The Polish peasant in Europe and America: Monograph of an immigrant group (Vol. 2). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

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