The Representation of Refugees In The Media in 2019 | Panel Discussion At Edinburgh University

Updated: Nov 9, 2019

Panel Discussion Overview | February 2019

COLOURS Of Edinburgh's inaugural Panel Discussion, this year on the Representation of Refugees in the media, saw massive success with over 250 people turning up and a wealth of thought leaders guiding the analysis! Our brilliant panelists discussed the representation of refugees in the media in the 21st century, and how to accurately portray their stories moving forward. The discussion touched upon an array of topics, including how refugees are often categorising as one, as well as how we should start shifting the narrative to create an accurate portrayal of refugees in the media.

COLOURS of Edinburgh Panel Discussion: Representation of Refugees in 2019
COLOURS of Edinburgh Panel Discussion: Representation of Refugees in 2019

From Nihad al Turk - Syrian born and internationally renown artist now based in Edinburgh after leaving Syria due to the regime - to Selina Hales - award-winner, founder of Refuweegee, and advocate for newcomers - to Marwa Daher - volunteer and media studies student who moved to Edinburgh four years ago to seek refuge - to Fee Mira Gerlach - German activist for Refugee Rights Europe for two years before joining the Scottish Refugee Council this year - our panelists each shared a distinct approach to the topics at hand.

The discussion began by noting that 68.5 million people globally are the victims of forced displacement (UNHCR, 2019). Few of which actually make it to Europe or the U.K, with most finding refuge in poorer states. Yet, Britain offers neither visa for asylum seekers nor other legal means for refugees to safely escape the dangers of their home country. Despite the reality being minor, the media depicts the refugee crisis as a giant ‘wave’ plaguing the U.K and bringing with it crime and disruption.

The Panelists considered various questions arising from these facts, beginning with how organisations like Refuweegee and the Scottish Refugee Council address and prevent misrepresentations. A starting point given by Selina and Gerlach was to ensure that media discussion is being conducted with trusted, non-biased reporters who won’t misuse refugee stories. It was also emphasised that the media should depict the complex truths of being a refugee as well as the success stories we see typically in Scotland in order to dis-attach dangerous labels and correct perceptions.

Has The Public Lost Interest In The Refugee Crisis?

Next, the Panel discussed the changing discourse in the media and recent developments. Marwa noted that the public has become increasingly sympathetic due to available data on the crisis. She believes that this has impacted society in cultivating an interest in hearing refugee stories. Selina discussed that the varying sympathy and prejudice found is dependant on which outlet one is reading. Overall, the media (particularly in the U.K) fails to shed light on individual experiences of the asylum process and forced migration, and instead focuses on more general efforts which end up being fruitless.

Selina commented that there was a peak surge of interest, but recently the public has been hearing less on the refugee crisis. Nonetheless, as a society we are better connected and able to find the information we are searching for due to technology and social media, and so we are still able to maintain touch with the crisis provided we are aware that it is still prevalent. Nihad continued that the media is a platform generally used to criticise and comment on government scandal, but the lack of discussion of refugees’ personal stories is a waste. He also shared his own experiences: one instance where he had an exhibition at a library which the media had no interest in reporting, and he recalled an interview he did from a year ago which was never published in the media, and he was never contacted again. The Panel concluded that perhaps, the media is unconcerned with depicting the truth of life as a refugee, and places too much emphasis on sensationalising what is the world’s most severe displacement crisis since World War II.

How Should We Approach Refugee Representation?

The panellists agreed that how people, organisations and specifically the media should look at representing the highly diverse refugee community differently. This included a discussion of the reasons for forced migration and its impact on society. Nihad explained his view that the media can’t be pushed in any particular direction without a struggle, and that it would take an active, strenuous effort by society to alter the current representation of refugees in the media. Marwa concluded the discussion by calling on society to be more tolerant and understanding of refugees. She is firm in her belief that by integrating refugees and cultivating inclusivity, they will become a part of our community and the media, consequently, won’t be faulty in their representation of refugees.

In relation to what steps we can take, as a society, it was discussed that linking civil society and other stakeholders to those seeking asylum in order to build a sustainable life in Scotland is important. More than a top-down integration effort is needed; in particular, a more personalised system is required to provide for different socioeconomic backgrounds. We should aim to establish a platform which bridges newcomers and locals in social and sustainable enterprises in order to establish long-term integration. Volunteering was encouraged, provided one is prepared to do the heavy-lifting and exercising the patience require to not only correct media perceptions of refugees, but also to make a tangible difference.

"Us" vs. "Them" Dichotomy

All in all, the U.K’s policy is inflexible and creates an inherent bias due to the “us” versus “them” dichotomy. Rather than representing real individuals’ stories, refugees are often reduced to numbers in the form of statistics when depicted in the media. Buzzwords affect public opinion and take away from the complexities and realities of forced migration. The media should, instead, strive to empower readers to take action on the crisis - by shutting down undue prejudice and welcoming newcomers - and reflect on why they are telling the stories they choose.

For the full panel discussion, please see:

Writer Credits: Dala Soubra

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