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Refugees in the media

Refugee crisis in the media
Since 2015 thousands of people have crossed the  Aegean sea escaping war persecution or poverty in   search of a better life and safety. Yet many have  found themselves trapped in squalid overcrowded   refugee camps sometimes for months even years on  the Greek islands of Lesbos, Gios or here on Samos.   the so-called refugee crisis has  captured news headlines across the world   for years. Indeed it is through the media  that many of us have been confronted with   this humanitarian tragedy that’s unfolding along  Europe’s shores.
The media does play a crucial role   in shaping public attitudes towards migration as  well as towards those who cross Europe’s borders.   How then are refugees portrayed in the media  how are their voices and testimonies used   and appropriated in media accounts, what kinds  of images and stories do the media circulate   in the public domain about the refugee  crisis and what kind of impact do these   media narratives have do they foster greater  understanding and empathy or do they contribute   to xenophobic anti-migrant sentiments across  Europe. These are some of the questions   we’re going to be exploring.
But it’s important to  recall that refugee camps are more than spaces of   suffering, violence and despair to which  they’re often reduced in media accounts.   Camps are social and political spaces in which  people find often incredibly inspiring and   creative ways to cooperate, to cope, to fight, to  resist and ultimately to live and that extends   to the way that refugees and those who stand  in solidarity with them try to challenge these   dominant media narratives, try to challenge the  often dehumanizing stereotypes in media portrayals.  So we’re also going to be looking at the  way that refugees and grassroots volunteers   are trying to use media to challenge and to  change the narrative.
The way that refugees use   for example mobile phones to document  human rights violations at the border,   the way they use media to capture  everyday life in the camp and ultimately   the way they try to reclaim their voice, their  dignity and their rights at Europe’s borders.

Since 2015, the European ‘refugee crisis’ has become one of the most divisive political issues, repeatedly capturing news headlines across the continent.

Through the language and images they choose to use, journalists may contribute to greater public hostility or hospitality towards people who cross Europe’s borders. Consequently, the media play a key role in shaping public debate around migration.

Media scholars have explored the variations in tone, terminology, imagery, and thematic focus in media reporting of the ‘crisis’ within and between countries. They show that news reports range from those that actively promote hate speech and hostility towards migrants to more sympathetic accounts of the hardships they often endure.

This ambivalence in media representations is reflected in the two ‘figures’ of the refugee that tend to dominate news coverage: the ‘victim’ and the ‘villain’. The former tends to portray the crisis as a humanitarian emergency, focussing on the plight of refugees in camps and along their journeys. It is often accompanied by portrayals of helpless and vulnerable refugees, especially children and women. The latter, by contrast, focusses on their potential threat to national security and identity, links to criminality and terrorism, and the need for greater border control. For example, the UK media landscape is distinguished by prominent right-wing tabloids such as the Daily Mail and The Sun that routinely endorse a hard-line, anti-refugee perspective which emphasises the threat that migrants pose to Britain’s welfare system.

While seemingly opposed to each other, both perspectives, media scholars argue, are easily interchangeable. By reducing refugees to either vulnerable or dangerous outsiders, they deny the full humanity of these individuals. Furthermore, they serve to marginalise their voices. Indeed, a range of studies of European media coverage of the ‘refugee crisis’ have found that “refugees, asylum seekers, immigrants and migrants, regardless of their country of origins, are rarely quoted within news reports” (Cooper et al. 2020). As a result, they have only very limited opportunities to speak directly about their diverse experiences of displacement, with female refugees in particular almost entirely excluded. Instead, they are generally spoken for by various political actors, humanitarian organisations, or journalists themselves.

This silencing of refugees’ voices and testimonies matters. It contributes to a process of “symbolic bordering” (Chouliaraki, 2017) that divides “Us” from the “Them” and reinforces the geopolitical borders between Europe and the “rest” of the world.

However, mainstream media are not the only ones able to represent the refugee crisis. Digital media, as the next step demonstrates, offer spaces for refugees, grassroots volunteers and activists to challenge dominant media narratives about migration and borders.


Chouliaraki, L. (2017). Symbolic bordering: The self-representation of migrants and refugees in digital news, Popular Communication, 15:2, 78-94.

Cooper, G., Blumell, L., & Bunce, M. (2020). Beyond the ‘refugee crisis’: How the UK news media represent asylum seekers across national boundaries. International Communication Gazette.

Georgiou, M., & Zaborowski, R. (2017). Media coverage of the ‘refugee crisis’: A cross-European perspective. Council of Europe report. Strasbourg: Council of Europe. Available online:

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