By Katie Nguyen
The treatment of refugees has always been close to my heart, having been one myself.
Four years after our hometown, Saigon, fell to Communist forces, I escaped Vietnam with my parents. We miraculously survived the journey by wooden boat and came to Britain in 1979. The UK not only provided us with refuge but some incredible opportunities and freedoms for which I'll be eternally grateful. Yet, growing up here, I've always thought 'refugee' was a bit of a dirty word. After all, nobody really wants refugees, do they?
It seems Margaret Thatcher did not back in 1979. Secret files released in 2009 revealed her reluctance to accept 10,000 Vietnamese refugees. She only agreed after much arm-twisting by her foreign and home secretaries - and was recorded as saying she thought it "quite wrong that immigrants should be given council housing whereas white citizens were not".
Thirty years on, have perceptions - of foreigners coming to Britain to milk the welfare system - changed that much? Is there any better understanding in the UK of what it is to be a refugee or an immigrant and the difference between the two?
Sadly not, if you look at the findings of a British Red Cross survey which shows 72 percent of the 2,573 people polled thought newspaper reporting about refugees and asylum seekers was negative. Sixty-five percent of those polled said "illegal immigrant" was the phrase the media use most often when referring to these groups, and 29 percent said "scroungers".
The charity is using this research to back its calls for a new press regulator - as recommended by the Levenson Inquiry into press standards and behaviour - to more actively monitor reporting about refugees.
It wants an end to irrelevant references to immigration status in stories and a crackdown on inaccurate terms like "bogus asylum seeker" or "illegal asylum seeker". The Red Cross also wants the new body to allow it and other groups to lodge complaints about misleading stories on asylum seekers.
But regulation is just part of the solution. What's also needed, we heard at last week's Red Cross debate on the issue, is a cultural shift. We need to get newspaper editors to stop exploiting populist fears of overpopulation and stolen jobs, and get them to start seeing refugees as individuals who have fled persecution. A shift that would help change public perception.
"The problem we have is convincing editors of popular newspapers to behave," said Roy Greenslade, a prominent commentator who blogs for the left-leaning Guardian newspaper. "They will say this is a threat to their freedom but there is no freedom without responsibility," he told the debate.
"When the red tops (tabloid newspapers) and others go on their asylum-bashing exercises, when they demand a cut in numbers, we see that the response from mainstream political parties, feeling under pressure, is ... not to be seen to be soft on immigration, asylum and refugee status," said leading gay rights campaigner Peter Tatchell, who has also worked on asylum issues for the past 20 years.
Tatchell told the debate that asylum seekers were not only often demonised by a culture that sees all of them as bogus, but that the public rarely hears of any positive contributions refugees have made to Britain, nor is there much reporting of the injustices in the asylum system.
He said there had not been enough media coverage of the impact legal aid cuts were having on asylum applications or the unfairness of a fast-track system which gives applicants two weeks to present their case - to get evidence from their home country of arrest, imprisonment or torture and medical corroboration to support their claim.
"I don't think it's any accident that this is the way in which the government has contrived the system," Tatchell said. The government's objective was to cut the number of asylum seekers accepted into Britain, he said, adding that the system is "cynical, it's vicious, it's nasty and it's wrong".
Everyone working with asylum seekers knows how tough it is to win refugee status but I had no idea of what some individuals are forced to do in a bid to be deemed 'credible'.
Tatchell said many gay asylum seekers fleeing countries where homosexuality is banned or a criminal offence are systematically disbelieved by UK officials, and as a result are resorting to filming themselves having sex with their partners to try to prove they are genuinely gay.
Dave Garratt, the chief executive of Refugee Action, also spoke of flaws in the system, pointing out that one in four initial rulings against granting asylum were later overturned.
"What people do is absolutely confuse immigration with asylum," he added. "So although asylum seekers only make up about 4 percent of immigration every year, when you say 'immigration' to people, 60 percent of them say 'asylum seekers'."
So, what hope is there?
Drawing on his years of experience in the fight for gay rights, Tatchell said concerted attempts in the 1980s and 1990s by campaigners to get in touch with individual journalists who wrote homophobic stories to discuss their reporting ultimately helped to change public perceptions - time-consuming as it was.
Another idea would be to get journalists to meet refugees and asylum seekers face to face. Again, it would be time-consuming, but it can be a way of breaking down prejudices.
There's some comfort in the thought that derogatory terms for homosexuals, blacks and Jews - among other minority groups - have now disappeared altogether from British newspapers.