The Role of the Media in Europe’s Refugee Crisis

The media serves an important role in society insofar as it helps bring important issues to the attention of the community (Fourie, 2007: 202).  In the case of the ongoing European refugee crisis, the media reporting has given the public insight into the refugees fleeing the Assad regime in Syria.  Media coverage of the issue has, however, been mixed.

There has been some excellent coverage focussing on the harsh reality of the struggles faced by men and women, traversing Syria then Turkey, Greece, Macedonia, Serbia and beyond, in search of safety in Western Europe, often with young children in tow.  While publications such as The Guardian and The Independent have, predictably, focussed on the human element of the crisis, the right-wing media have in general responded rather differently, focussing on national security.  Publications such as The Daily Mail, The Sun, and The Daily Mirror received widespread criticism on social media for their use of dehumanising language when reporting on the refugee crisis. Instead of referring to the Syrians fleeing Assad as ‘refugees’ the right-wing media invariably referred to them as ‘migrants’. Al Jazeera even went as far as to make the editorial decision to not refer to those fleeing Syria as ‘migrants’.  The difference in these two terms is crucial and the editorial decision to use one term over the other necessarily impacts on the tone of the article or feature that it relates to and therefore on how the public may respond to the report. The United Nations defines refugees as ‘persons fleeing armed conflict or persecution’. In contrast, migrants are defined as people;

who choose to move not because of a direct threat of persecution or death but mainly to improve their lives by finding work, or in some cases for education, family reunion, or other reasons.

The distinction is critical. If the media frame those fleeing Syria as migrants then it follows that the public and politicians is likely to be less inclined to offer their support, financial or otherwise, as they believe that people are moving not out of fear for their lives but rather for better paid work or an easier life.

The Syria crisis is not the only circumstance where the UK’s media has portrayed migrants and refugees in a negative light, so much so that earlier in 2015 the UN’s High Commissioner for Human Rights issued a statement calling on British authorities, media and regulatory bodies to take steps to curb hate speech against these groups in British tabloids. In contrast, the media in France and Germany have been leading the calls for their countries to do more and criticising the British government for doing so little to help those in dire need.

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An example of the contrast in language used in newspaper coverage of the refugee crisis

 Nevertheless, a turning point in the UK tabloid media’s reporting of the refugee crisis followed the death of Aylan Kurdi. The image of the three-year-old Syrian boy pictured lifeless and face-down in the sand in Turkey while fleeing Syria with his family was seen as a turning point in the response to the crisis. Tabloids stopped referring to refugees as ‘cockroaches’ and a ‘swarm’ and began to focus on the human cost of the crisis. Their dramatic u-turn did not go unnoticed with many comparing the coverage conducted only weeks apart.  However, this change of heart has not lasted long and, following the terrorist attacks in Paris in recent days and reports that one of the attackers passed through Greece after disguising themselves as a Syrian refugee. While this naturally raises genuine questions surrounding the refugee policy that ought to be debated openly, the tabloid newspapers reverting to what they know best – fear-mongering – is unhelpful.

The media have provided a wide variety of coverage on the ongoing refugee crisis. Some has been balanced, others not so much. However, what is clear is the privileged position that the media inhabit and that they have a responsibility to provide, clear and unbiased information to the public. A failure to do this is very serious indeed and can have wide-ranging consequences, impacting on public opinion and therefore on our willingness to support those fleeing for their lives.

What is the future of Media and how can they help to deliver solution for the refugee crisis?
Join the conversation at #refugeefdw on Twitter and join us at Refugee Forward event in London on the 26th of November at 7.30 pm

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Picture source : European Movement Ireland

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