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Asylum Politics, the Internet and the Public Sphere: UK Refugee Support Groups Online
Unformatted Document Text:  1 Asylum Politics, the Internet, and the Public Sphere The Case of UK Refugee Support Groups Online Introduction The dilemmas facing asylum and immigration politics in the cluster of countries designated as ‘Western’ are widely known. In the United Kingdom, asylum and immigration politics appears torn between international commitments to provide asylum, local public opinion deemed hostile to refugees/immigrants, and a mixed economic situation of, from one hand, extra labour demands, and on the other, reluctance to provide any extension of welfare entitlements and citizen rights. This confused situation has given rise to very restrictive policies, which in turn appear to legitimise the so-called public scepticism towards refugees/asylum seekers/immigrants 1 . Yet the restrictive and largely negative climate surrounding the asylum issue in the UK, and its associated rhetoric and justifications, have not gone unchallenged. Several non-governmental organisations have been launched for the purposes of supporting refugees in their quest for resettlement. If it were possible to provide a summary of the position of these diverse groups on the politics of asylum, this would be a position of solidarity with people fleeing their land for fear of persecution and/or to escape the burdens of poverty. Such a position is also pragmatic, in the sense that it demands that responses to asylum and immigration be realistically tuned to the increased requirements for labour, to an aging population, and also to the nation’s international commitments. The centrality and importance of this debate makes it a particularly interesting site to discuss the ways in which democratic politics is conducted, and within this, the relevance and contribution of the much-hyped new medium of the Internet. There, thus, is a double questioning running through this paper, centring on two issues, a specific one, ‘what is made of the Internet by refugee support activists’ and a more general one, ‘how can such use be assessed in theoretical terms’. The impetus for such questioning stems from a dissatisfaction with the way in which the public sphere theory can and has been applied to the Internet/politics relationship, coupled with a concern for a general lack of empirical findings which could show the ways in which the Internet is actually politically employed. In addressing these issues, the focus is placed on the debate of asylum/immigration, whose current prominence is beyond dispute, and, specifically on the Internet presence of UK-based or operating refugee support groups, whose Web sites constitute the empirical material analysed here. In empirical terms, thus, the concern is to identify the range of uses to which the Internet is put, whilst in theoretical terms, the concern is to extend our understanding of the Internet’s relationship to politics. In gauging theoretically the relationship of the Internet and politics, the point of entry is Jürgen Habermas’s theory of the public sphere. It is hard to underestimate the influence this theoretical model has had on communications theory, and the way it has directed research into the mass media. The perspective adopted here is one which uses the theory of the public sphere, and the associated political theoretical model of deliberative democracy, as an initial orientation, but aspiring to move beyond it, or to expand our understanding of it. Thus, the empirical findings are employed in discussing the theory of the public sphere/deliberative democracy, and its application on the Internet/politics relationship. The findings indicate that in their communications, refugee support groups address three different publics, the general public, a specialist public, comprising other refugee support groups, advisers and people working with refugees, the government/policy community, and the press/mass media; and finally, the public of refugees/asylum seekers. The range of publics addressed, the multitude of ways in which they are addressed, and the publicness of such communications, cast a shadow over the requirements of the public sphere/deliberative democracy for rational/critical deliberations among a

Authors: Siapera, Eugenia.
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1
Asylum Politics, the Internet, and the Public Sphere
The Case of UK Refugee Support Groups Online
Introduction
The dilemmas facing asylum and immigration politics in the cluster of countries designated as
‘Western’ are widely known. In the United Kingdom, asylum and immigration politics appears torn
between international commitments to provide asylum, local public opinion deemed hostile to
refugees/immigrants, and a mixed economic situation of, from one hand, extra labour demands, and on
the other, reluctance to provide any extension of welfare entitlements and citizen rights. This confused
situation has given rise to very restrictive policies, which in turn appear to legitimise the so-called public
scepticism towards refugees/asylum seekers/immigrants
1
. Yet the restrictive and largely negative
climate surrounding the asylum issue in the UK, and its associated rhetoric and justifications, have not
gone unchallenged. Several non-governmental organisations have been launched for the purposes of
supporting refugees in their quest for resettlement. If it were possible to provide a summary of the
position of these diverse groups on the politics of asylum, this would be a position of solidarity with
people fleeing their land for fear of persecution and/or to escape the burdens of poverty. Such a position
is also pragmatic, in the sense that it demands that responses to asylum and immigration be realistically
tuned to the increased requirements for labour, to an aging population, and also to the nation’s
international commitments. The centrality and importance of this debate makes it a particularly
interesting site to discuss the ways in which democratic politics is conducted, and within this, the
relevance and contribution of the much-hyped new medium of the Internet.
There, thus, is a double questioning running through this paper, centring on two issues, a
specific one, ‘what is made of the Internet by refugee support activists’ and a more general one, ‘how
can such use be assessed in theoretical terms’. The impetus for such questioning stems from a
dissatisfaction with the way in which the public sphere theory can and has been applied to the
Internet/politics relationship, coupled with a concern for a general lack of empirical findings which could
show the ways in which the Internet is actually politically employed. In addressing these issues, the
focus is placed on the debate of asylum/immigration, whose current prominence is beyond dispute, and,
specifically on the Internet presence of UK-based or operating refugee support groups, whose Web
sites constitute the empirical material analysed here. In empirical terms, thus, the concern is to identify
the range of uses to which the Internet is put, whilst in theoretical terms, the concern is to extend our
understanding of the Internet’s relationship to politics.

In gauging theoretically the relationship of the Internet and politics, the point of entry is Jürgen
Habermas’s theory of the public sphere. It is hard to underestimate the influence this theoretical model
has had on communications theory, and the way it has directed research into the mass media. The
perspective adopted here is one which uses the theory of the public sphere, and the associated political
theoretical model of deliberative democracy, as an initial orientation, but aspiring to move beyond it, or
to expand our understanding of it. Thus, the empirical findings are employed in discussing the theory of
the public sphere/deliberative democracy, and its application on the Internet/politics relationship.
The findings indicate that in their communications, refugee support groups address three
different publics, the general public, a specialist public, comprising other refugee support groups,
advisers and people working with refugees, the government/policy community, and the press/mass
media; and finally, the public of refugees/asylum seekers. The range of publics addressed, the multitude
of ways in which they are addressed, and the publicness of such communications, cast a shadow over
the requirements of the public sphere/deliberative democracy for rational/critical deliberations among a


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