Opinion: The European refugee crisis is a communications disaster. Here's why.

Refugees at the Kara Tepe camp on the Greek island of Lesbos. Photo by: Rick Bajornas / United Nations / CC BY-NC-ND

It is a common response when I tell people I am based in Greece working with refugees:

“Really? I didn’t know that was still a thing.”

There seems to be an overwhelming sense that a situation that entered public consciousness in September 2015 — when many thousands of people were landing along the coastline of Northern Lesvos every day — has come to an end.

It is true that two years later the issue has become less visible. Since the implementation of the EU-Turkey Statement and the closing of European borders last year, far fewer people are able to make the journey across the Aegean.

Yet the situation for refugees in Europe remains critical.

“As media, communicators, and humanitarians, it is time to stop pandering to a discourse that obscures the real story of migration.”

More than 60,000 people are currently stranded in camps across Greece. Those who risked so much to seek protection within the European Union now find themselves in a protracted state of limbo. Stripped of their agency and freedom of mobility, many are waiting months or even years for a decision to be taken about their future. Meanwhile, hundreds more people arrive on the Greek islands every week, taking increasing risks to brave the highly securitized and militarized sea borders.

So why the discrepancy between reality on the ground and public perception?

1. The longer term challenges refugees face in Europe have been underreported.

Journalists have adopted ways of reporting that are not always conducive to sophisticated analysis, resorting to sensationalism in order to package and present the “refugee crisis” in a way people can readily understand and consume. The mere visibility of some facets of migration, such as boatloads of people cramming a tiny and barren island, have all the elements of newsworthiness that ongoing, massive sociopolitical, economic, and demographic changes do not. When time and material resources are limited, journalist visits are fleeting and their focus is on harvesting images of shipwrecked dinghies if and when a tragedy occurs. The fragments of “reality” they document succeed in leaving audiences momentarily horrified, but otherwise ignorant about what happens next — when people are relegated to long months, and even years, for decisions on their asylum, relocation, and family reunification.

2. Refugees are hyper-visualized, but under-vocalized.

When it comes to representing migration, news imagery often favors aerial images of people arriving. The overflowing boat motif, for example, shot from a bird's eye perspective, presents refugees as an approaching mass, stripping them of status — and therefore history and agency. At the same time as being made highly visible as a group, voices of individual refugees themselves are ignored or offered up within stereotypical tropes that are largely unrepresentative — and sometimes completely unaligned — with the vastly diverse experiences and perspectives of the people themselves. The tendency to portray “refugees” as a homogenous entity, of either powerless victims or angry radicals, deprives people of the agency to publicly speak for themselves, and erases the nuance of a highly complex situation.

As Lighthouse Relief has gone on to expand operations beyond emergency response operations, establishing safe spaces in camp settings, we increasingly recognize the need to disrupt a media discourse that excludes, ignores, or appropriates the voices of our beneficiaries. In order to disrupt the ongoing refugee stalemate, we are working to harness the powerful and often critically astute perspectives of those who are being directly affected by Europe’s attitude toward migration.  

3. Talking about a “crisis” is neither accurate nor productive.

The phrase “crisis” in relation to the situation for refugees in Europe is highly problematic. “Crisis” is a word suggestive of transience or temporality. It communicates a sense that the challenges related to the movement of people, both at the local and international level, are — if not yet completely resolved — in the process of being comprehensively addressed.

This could not be further from the truth.

Earlier this month, in the early hours after midnight, we witnessed a near tragedy here. The kind even an ambivalent media takes note of. As a storm broke on the North Shore of Lesvos we got word that a boat of 48 people was heading for the lighthouse at Korakas. Our spotters could see no trace of them — likely because the wind and driving waves had caused it to drift outside our area of observation. The authorities were made aware of the anticipated incoming dinghy, but did not permit rescue boats to dispatch.

Nobody should have been out on the water in that turbulent darkness, floating through the night at the whim of a storm. It was incredible luck that the fragile dinghy stayed afloat and no lives were lost. However, that we are driving people — mums and dads with babies and elderly parents — to push off toward an unknown shore in the depths of night, simply in a bid to claim their human right to asylum, is catastrophic enough. As all the while, conditions for refugees in Europe deteriorate.

By continuing to frame refugees within the parenthesis of an emergency, we amplify a sense of fear and urgency, justifying calls for stricter controls, less porous borders, tighter visa restrictions on travellers — as well as the exclusion of those who are perceived as threat.

As media, communicators, and humanitarians, it is time to stop pandering to a discourse that obscures the real story of migration; it is time to join a concerted communications effort to go beyond narratives that obsess over refugees as numbers or within the framework of “crisis management”; it is time to interrogate the systems forcing families into rubber boats in a tempest, denying access to basic human rights for the most vulnerable, and relegating whole populations to silence — or worse, to the sea.

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About the author

  • Hannah Wallace Bowman

    Hannah Wallace Bowman is head of communications and strategic partnerships at Lighthouse Relief. She began her professional career as a London publicist, before swapping out Hoxton for humanitarianism, and life as a relative nomad. Since then, her study and work at the intersection of journalism, development and rights advocacy has taken her from Latin America, to Africa, to the Middle-East — and back again. She is currently based on the Greek island of Lesvos, where she is committed to reframing the debate around refugees and displaced people.