Tuesday, 20 May 2008

'Sanctuary' and 'asylum' across the pond

This story in today's Daily Mirror amused me because it reminded me of the ridiculous nature of semantics and word associations. Here in the UK the term "asylum seekers" has become practically an epithet, almost a catch-all for meaning 'illegal immigration'. Much of middle England has taken to using the term as shorthand for people who abuse the system to get residency in Britain, take advantage of social services and steal jobs from hard-working Brits.

Technically, an asylum seeker is someone who shows up at the UK border seeking asylum under existing laws because they are in danger in their home country due to war or other violence. That asylum is either granted, immediately turned down, or they are kept in holding facilities in the UK awaiting a decision.

Because the term has taken on such a negative meaning, a report out today is arguing that the term should be changed to ‘sanctuary cities.’ The report showed that only 28 percent of Brits say the word asylum has a positive connotation for them, whereas 81 percent said ‘sanctuary’ sounded positive.

What amused me so much about this was that in the United States it’s the complete opposite. It’s the word ‘sanctuary’ that has become synonymous with illegal immigration, mostly because of the term ‘sanctuary city,’ a US city that has adopted a ‘don’t ask don’t tell’ policy toward illegal immigrants. In these cities, such as New York, where city services are available to illegal immigrants and their children and local police don’t pursue the issue if they find out someone is in the US illegally. The term was widely used during the Republican presidential primary, when Mitt Romney and other candidates used it to blast Giuliani, who was mayor of New York when this policy was adopted.

NPR’s “On the Media” did an amusing piece on this phenomenon last August, when it asked how the word ‘sanctuary’- which has historically been associated with positive things like the worshiping hall of a church or a safe haven – had become such a dirty word in American politics. As the piece points out, one could laugh off the absurdity of it, except when you hear some of the ways the word is now being used by right-wing pundits and conservative polticians, most disturbingly in the case of a shooting last summer in Newark, New Jersey where the perpetrators were Hispanic. Republican presidential candidate Tom Tancredo came to the city shortly after and said that such crimes were a direct result of the fact that Newark is a ‘sanctuary city.’

So the idea that just changing the word is going to solve the problem seems pretty silly to me. Should the US start calling these cities “asylum cities” and the UK start calling these immigrants “sanctuary seekers?” How long until those words then become tainted in the other country? Isn’t it really not so much about the words, but rather the fears and emotions that cause people to think of them negatively?

It is interesting how the meaning of words can be changed over time. It’s really quite easy to give a word a negative connotation if it’s used in such a way by enough people.

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