Raising Awareness to Promote Refugee Inclusion
SHARE Network Regional Conference
June 26-28, 2019
“The biggest pain is when you arrive in a new place and you have so much to offer, but you can’t communicate,”
says Yeboua “Moise” Moussa Ouattara.
A legal advisor living in the small Transylvanian town of Somcuta Mare, Ouattara is the first refugee to have attended a Romanian university. When he fled religious persecution in Ivory Coast, he left behind a promising career as a criminologist.
His difficulties communicating in his new country steamed from a language barrier, but they were also rooted in a perception that was reflected to him by his new neighbors, that of being different, separate from them.
In recent years, this perception of an undefined “us” opposed to “them” has been exacerbated. Since the 2015 influx of migrants and refugees arriving in Europe, European media and political actors have utilized this polarized sense of identity. This discourse has led to an irrational fear of migrants and refugees.
On the backdrop of this polarization, the International Catholic Migration Commission (ICMC)’s European office’s SHARE Network and Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS) Romania organized a conference on awareness-raising to promote refugee inclusion in Bucharest, from 26 to 28 June.
The conference brought together refugees and representatives of NGOs, international organizations and governments to share strategies that promote positive portrayals of migrants and refugees, with a geographic focus on Central Eastern Europe. Participants from 15 countries took part in the conference. Topics included the media’s role and responsibility in shaping public opinions, the creation of spaces for encounters between migrants and locals, and the promotion of refugee self-representation.
Reporting on Migration Issues: the Media’s Role in Shaping Perceptions
Irene Teodor, a border monitoring assistant at JRS Romania, presented an overview of migration press coverage in the country since the number of arrivals through the Black Sea began to increase in 2017. The reporting she analyzed could be divided in three phases.
In the first part, migration was framed as a humanitarian crisis, and migrants were portrayed merely as victims. This phase was followed by a more negative portrayal of migrants, with the media beginning to use terms such as “Muslim invasion” and “worrying numbers”. The final phase involved a polarization of opinions within the media, with the emergence of fear and conspiracy theories on the one hand and of the publication of success stories on the other.
This tendency towards sensationalist reporting of migrant influx is not limited to Romania. Participants shared examples of sensationalist reporting originating from across Europe.
Francesca Pierigh presented the results of Refugees Reporting, a media monitoring project spanning seven European countries, conducted by the World Association of Christian Communication (WACC) – Europe in 2017. Among the research’s key findings are the low representation of refugees and migrants in the news, a strong tendency to consider migration solely as a political issue detached from its broader context, and a low reference to the role of human rights and refugee law.
Moreover, when reporting on refugee-related stories, media outlets often reduced their identities by limiting their description to that of “migrant” and omitting to quote or interview them. Women refugees were particularly absent in the sample analyzed, as were specific nationalities.
There is a correlation between the depiction made of migrants and refugees in the media and national public opinion on migration. When comparing Refugees Reporting’s media monitoring results with national public opinions, one can see that in countries where refugees have a voice in the media and where their rights are mentioned, people are less likely to wish for migration to diminish.
Providing a balanced narrative
However, public opinion on migration may not be as polarized as polls suggest. Maïder Piola-Urtizberea from More in Common, an international initiative to unite people and fight polarization, presented the findings of a research project on French Catholics’ views on migration. If at first glance, this group seems divided between those in favor of migration and those opposed to it, a closer look shows that the majority is torn between their sense of solidarity and their fear that opening the doors to migration will have negative consequences on the nation’s cultural and economic stability.
For those ambivalent towards migration, providing opportunities for encounter with refugees who share similar stories and values, supporting initiatives that will benefit economically insecure locals as well as migrants, and giving a platform to pro-migration influencers are all strategies that can help fight negative portrayals of migrants and refugees.
Moreover, credibility relies on balanced narratives that profile migrants and refugees with dignity while also addressing the challenges related to welcome and integration. Hélène Soupios-David from France Terre d’Asile noted the importance of deconstructing “positive biases” about migrants, and of avoiding a romantic idealization of asylum-seekers, which does not reflect reality and would minimize both the concerns of fearful citizens and the challenges faced by migrants.
Above all else, balanced communication requires allowing refugees to express themselves, through personal encounters with community members and self-representation in the media.
Participants shared many examples that promote encounters between migrants and refugees and local populations. These include encouraging newcomers and locals to join activities such as book clubs, sports activities, roundtables and music and dance events.
Drazen Klaric, from JRS Croatia and Zrinka Hafizović from Municipality of Sisak gave an account of the preparations for local actors and members of the community prior to the arrival of a group of Syrian refugees resettled from Turkey to Croatia. Resettled refugees arriving into Croatia spend an initial 6-8 weeks at a small central reception facility, before moving onto their final housing in the municipalities of Sisak and Karlovak. In the meantime, JRS Croatia in partnership with the municipalities organizes information sessions to prepare local stakeholders for arrivals and builds bridges between locals and newcomers once refugees arrive to their neighborhoods.
Bistra Ivanova, from the Multi Kulti Collective in Bulgaria, explained how culinary events allowed her organization to use food as a tool for integration. Through these events, locals and foreigners get a chance to sit at the table together and exchange personal stories. The fact that the activity does not fixate on migrants’ foreignness, but instead on the trendy topic of gastronomy, allows participants to focus on their similarities rather than on their differences.
Tímea Lovig, a project coordinator for Menedek in Hungary, explained that positive encounters could be prepared, for example by training locals, from social workers and teachers to police officers and security guards, to teach them about the specificities and best practices when working with migrants.
Refugee self-representation in the media
Participants also presented several inspiring initiatives to promote refugee self-representation in the media and in the public policy sphere. Yagoub Kibeida, the executive director of Mosaico Azioni per I Refugiati in Italy, presented the Refugees’ Ideas and Solutions for Europe (RISE) network. Led by refugee communities, the network promotes awareness through initiatives as diverse as flash mobs and trips to Lesvos island. Its objectives include raising awareness, empowering refugees, and supporting integration through the voices of refugees themselves.
Lama Jaghjougha, project officer for the European Association for Viewers Interests, presented the “Building Trust” campaign, through which migrants and refugees were trained in storytelling. The training included briefings on topics on which migrants and refugees were encouraged to focus and others that should be avoided to discourage hate speech and promote fair media representation.
Finally, Ivanova presented Multi Kulti’s work to help migrants and refugees take their place in Bulgarian media, by developing good relationships with journalists and becoming facilitators when they are looking for sources with a migrant background. She shared how by being creative and thinking out-of-the-box, by preparing high-quality material that was ready for journalists to use and by reaching out to new audiences that include women’s press and motoring magazines, her organization had become a resource which journalists relied upon, while giving migrants and refugees a platform to voice themselves.