Communicating the Global Migrant Crisis

by Erica Dunham and Tess Wallenstein on August 24, 2015

Communicating the Global Migrant Crisis

Amid a morning yoga session on the shores of the Aegean, Syrian refugees make their way through aTurkish beach resort carrying what little they can salvage from their capsized dinghy. These migrants are just a few of the 1.6 million who have fled war-torn Syria in favor of its northern neighbor.

 Photo courtesy of the Hurriyet Daily News

Millions more have escaped violence, dictatorship, and oppression in countries like Afghanistan, Eritrea, and Iraq in favor of freedom and in search of hope and opportunity. According to the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner of Refugees (UNHCR), one in every 122 people on the planet is now a refugee, internally displaced person, or seeking asylum. As of June 2015, 1,865 migrants died at sea, already making 2015 “the deadliest year” for migrants and asylum seekers. However, those who make it to the shores of Turkey or the European Union are often confronted with a different kind of oppression upon arrival.

Nations have responded differently to the ongoing migrant crisis, but the majority of responses have been overwhelmingly negative towards incoming refugee populations. Although the mounting refugee crisis impacts populations globally, media coverage has zeroed in on European political rhetoric. Airtime and column inches are devoted to one side of the story, and often reflect a well established xenophobia.

Much of the rhetoric about migrant populations disassociates refugees from the violent realities they leave behind. British Prime Minister Cameron described refugees as “swarming” European communities, while Foreign Secretary Hammond said refugees are “marauding” through the UK and threaten European security, living standards, and social infrastructure. Refugees are therefore dehumanized and likened to dangerous invaders, even though two-thirds of people seeking asylum in the UK arrived legally. Hammond has also repeatedly referenced the African economic migrant archetype when describing refugee populations. However and ironically, according to reports from UNHCR, more than half of migrants are not from Africa, but from war-ravaged countries throughout the Middle East and Central Asia. Moreover, 62 percent of these migrants are refugees seeking asylum rather than economic migrants.

The media has used similarly problematic language when describing refugee populations. The Daily Mail said the “tidal wave” of refugees could be the biggest threat to Europe since World War II. However, the number of migrants that have arrived in Europe this year constitute just .0027% of the European population. Instead, the majority of the world’s refugees are hosted by developing countries outside of Europe. Lebanon offers refuge to 1.2 million Syrians; although the country is 100 time smaller than the EU, Lebanon has already taken in 50 times as many refugees as the EU will consider hosting. Pakistan hosts as many as 1.5 million refugees, second only to Turkey’s 1.6 million refugees.

While some citizens support anti-refugee sentiments, others are increasingly speaking out against the policies of their states and challenging the dehumanizing rhetoric of their nation’s elites. As several Western leadershave called upon their governments to cut benefits for asylum seekers, citizens are countering these messages by promoting their country as an attractive destination for incoming migrants.

Recently, the Hungarian government’s plan to build a wall along its border with Serbia to prevent an inflow of migrantswas met with a crowd-funded campaign to create 1,000 pro-migrant billboards. The billboards, written in English and strategically located by Budapest’s main airport, satirize the Hungarian government’s stance against migrants. Some declare that the country has been empty since Hungarians have left for other EU countries, while others apologize for Prime Minister Viktor Orbán. The United Nations also launched a billboard campaign to counter the Hungarian government’s anti-refugee posters.

 Photo courtesy of The Telegraph

In the German town of Freital, artists known as Dies Irae (“Days of Wrath”) posted signs that read, “Refugees Welcome” and “Nobody is illegal.” The Peng Collective, a German pro-refugee group, produced a video that calls on Germans to be “refugee helpers,” and encourages Germans to bring back refugees upon returning from holiday. Another group, the Center for Political Beauty, created a video about the tragedies migrants experience when crossing the Mediterranean.

 Photo courtesy of BBC

Danish citizens have also reacted to their government’s anti-refugee position. After the Danish government announced that it intended to publish anti-refugee advertisements in foreign media, a Danish Facebook campaign with over 18,000 supporters published pro-asylum advertisements in British newspaper The Guardian. Several Danish politicians have voiced their support for producing an anti-asylum video in both English and Arabic that would be similar to one recently released by the Australian government which proclaims, “You will not make Australia home.”

 Photo courtesy of The Local DK

Ultimately, the spectrum of responses towards the global migrant crisis reveals deep divisions and changing attitudes within the European Union. The UK blames France and the EU for the ongoing crisis in Calais, an attitude that coincides with the upcoming referendum about whether or not the UK should remain in the EU. By contrast, countries like Italy and Greece have been calling for increased EU assistance. According to the EU’s Dublin regulation, however, asylum seekers must remain in the first European country they enter. While some countries seek to further engage and collaborate with their EU partners, the UK continues to recede at the expense of refugees.

Thus, the migrant crisis is twofold. The crisis is a highly personal one, as persecuted populations face humanitarian disaster long before they journey across the Mediterranean or traverse the English Channel. The struggle has also become a political one as countries tussle over how to address incoming refugees, and the crises that fueled migration. From Myanmar to Syria, it has become increasingly clear that the migrant crisis extends far beyond the confines of the European Union. The migrant crisis has become global in nature, and requires a global solution.



Erica Dunham, Senior Research Analyst

Tess Wallenstein, Undergraduate Communications and Research Intern



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