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‘A Person Lost Everything and We Call It Illegal Migration? It’s Not Fair’

The latest episode of the hit Media Storm podcast focuses on the more positive narratives around refugees that journalists could disseminate – and why they selectively choose not to

Photo: Richard Gass/Alamy

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This week saw World Refugee Day, designated by the United Nations to honour people who have been forced to flee around the globe. The day was first held globally in 2001 to mark the 50th anniversary of the 1951 Convention on the Status of Refugees, which defines the term ‘refugee’ and sets international standards for their protection.

On the latter, it’s easy to see the ways in which the Government has failed (see: the Rwanda deportation bill). On the former, it is the media that fails, time and time again. 

The Convention’s definition of a refugee is “someone who is unable or unwilling to return to their country of origin owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion”.

But this is not the definition used by media outlets, who reserve the term ‘refugee’ for people whose request for asylum has been approved by a host country.

Instead, the media bandies around terms such as ‘migrant’, ‘asylum seeker’, or ‘illegal immigrant’. The least used term? People

“There is no ‘illegal migration’, because people are forced to flee. They don’t choose to come for a better life. They come for safety.”

Zahra Shaheer, a prominent Afghan journalist and newsreader, fled to the UK following the Taliban’s rise to power in August 2021. She told the latest episode of the Media Storm podcast about the huge gap in empathy in the reporting on those who have been forced out of their homelands.

“A person… lost everything,” she said. “And we call it illegal migration? It’s not fair.”

Indeed, the rampant dehumanisation of refugees in our media has led to desensitisation so extensive that a story about a Greek coastguard deliberately throwing people seeking asylum into the Mediterranean Sea – to their deaths – barely makes a sound. A cow hit by a police car generates more concern.

What is behind this?

A potent cocktail of scapegoating and racism underpins dehumanisation.

“When Russia invaded Ukraine, I didn’t remember any mainstream media, or any outlet, even with the tabloid or other, labelling Ukrainians as ‘illegal immigrants’ or asylum seekers,” Osama Gaweesh, a former dentist and political activist who fled Egypt after a military coup in 2013, and is now editor-in-chief of EgyptWatch in the UK, told Media Storm.

He pointed to the word that so often follows ‘refugee’ or ‘migrant’ in UK media – ‘crisis’: “Describing people as a ‘crisis’ is not fair. We can talk about economic crisis, we can talk about border crisis, we can talk about inflation crisis, but we can’t label people as a crisis. I describe this as a racist label.” 

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A humanitarian crisis is typically defined as an event that “critically threatens the health, safety, security or wellbeing of a community”. It is telling that, in most cases when our media describes the ‘refugee crisis’, the crisis it seems to be referring to is not the millions of people being forced out of their homes, but the tens of thousands trying to come to ours.

As Shaheer pointed out, the term ‘crisis’ should “highlight the need, that refugees need help, they need support”. Instead, the creation of the ‘crisis’ is placed solely on the people trying to cross borders, with responsibility lifted off the creators of the border policies. 

This is summed up in Gaweesh’s impassioned plea to listeners on this week’s Media Storm: “A refugee is not your enemy. Your enemy is the regime that made this refugee. The mainstream media here need to understand this: refugees didn’t cause the inflation to increase. Refugees didn’t make the NHS salary low. Refugees didn’t force Britain to leave the European Union. The Government here in this country and some political parties, with their pathetic policies and their support and backing of authoritarian leaders in the Middle East, they are the problem.” 

The mass scapegoating of refugees and the mass gaslighting of the public is to be expected, when there are vastly more negative than positive stories about refugees on a daily basis.

With the two extreme depictions of refugees – one, the faceless and nameless people crossing the Channel; and two, the refugee success story (they’re an Olympic gold medallist so they can stay) – we forget too easily that refugees are all around us. Normal, interesting, diverse people, embedded in our communities and economies, that add value to our society.

“The coverage [in the] media of refugee stories are victims or criminals,” Gaweesh said. “There is no midpoint between. We need to focus on the job, the history, the positive points of this man or woman in his or her homeland. Highlight [that] they were brilliant in their homeland, and they will do the same in this country. We need to deal with people proudly.” 

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Both Gaweesh and Shaheer praise the Refugee Journalism Project for helping them to maintain their careers after resettling. The programme runs workshops, mentoring, and media placements for refugee journalists, tailored to their unique experiences.

Shaheer, a distinguished journalist in Afghanistan, was considering a job dish-washing or dog-walking to support her two children when she first moved over. “But the Refugee Journalism Project helped me. It’s very difficult for a journalist to throw away her pen.” 

Both also spoke to Media Storm about the importance of hiring refugees as journalists.

Too often, the media’s line of questioning puts refugees off from wanting to speak. But if refugees are invited to share not their trauma, but their expertise, we can begin to find workable solutions to the ‘crisis’ put on the shoulders of the people who had no other choice. 

“Hire more refugee journalists, and be patient with their language barrier,” advised Gaweesh. “Train them, and develop their skills. And you will get a lot [back], because we have an area of experience. No one in this country can write about Afghanistan better than Zahra [Shaheer]. Or about Egypt better than me, even a correspondent who lived in Egypt or Afghanistan for many years.

“We are talking about industry diversity and inclusion – okay, these topics are brilliant. But please, do these topics on the ground.”

Media Storm’s ‘World Refugee Day: Inclusion and Solutions’ is out now

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