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Refugees: The Media Narrative Must Change

Updated: May 3

Since 2015, the year that more than a million migrants and refugees crossed into Europe in search of asylum, we have become bombarded with images of the ‘refugee crisis’. Newspapers have been filled with pictures depicting masses of men and women braving the Mediterranean Sea, refugees waiting indefinitely in the harsh conditions of camps, unaccompanied minors having to fend for themselves, or crowds walking along train tracks in the hope of reaching various destinations in Europe. These media representations of refugees and migrants are predominantly negative: they typically portray them as vulnerable and poor victims, or, conversely, as potential security and economic threats to host societies. Not only regularly using negatively-connotated or dehumanising words such as ‘floods’ ‘illegal’ and ‘terrorists’, the media invisibilises refugees’ voices and personal stories.

For many of us, these visual and textual media representations are the only way we will ever ‘encounter’ refugees in the course of our lives. For that reason, these media representations matter: they become an essential backdrop for us to form an opinion and a visual expectation of what ‘real’ refugees look like. Inevitably, they affect local communities’ attitudes towards the integration of refugees into receiving countries.

Ever since I can remember, I have been exasperated by these negative media portrayals, and have rejected them in favour of more positive and humanising ones. I have always advocated for welcoming individuals facing exile. But my imagination of refugees was still somewhat shaped by the images I had internalised from the media. I presumed refugees to be racialised bodies, living a life characterised by suffering, sorrow, and a lack of belonging through permanent transit — a life I believed to be completely different from ‘ours’. My media-informed perception changed completely when I began working with refugees.

These media representations matter: they become an essential backdrop for us to form an opinion and a visual expectation of what ‘real’ refugees look like

While initially searching for work in a different field, I ended up conducting my industry placement for my Sociology with Psychology undergraduate degree at Action Emploi Réfugiés, a non-governmental organisation in Paris which helps statutory refugees find employment and trains them to succeed in the French labour market and in their wider integration. The organisation also aims to increase awareness and convey a positive image of refugees as bringing cultural richness and a diverse pool of skills to communities. In my time there, I notably created actions promoting fellowship and assistance among refugees, organised and led regular actions such workshops on job interview preparation and CV writing.

Many of the refugees I worked with were doctors, dentists, engineers, teachers, lawyers, or IT specialists, hoping to rebuild the careers they had been forced to leave behind. Some described the success and wealth they had previously known, their lives which were once good and happy, the vibrant and beautiful cities they had known back home before the conflict began, and the hopes and dreams they had before becoming refugees. This was unexpected to me, as I had never previously associated being a ‘refugee’ with the possibility of having a once prosperous and fulfilling life.

I witnessed an incredible drive, tremendous energy, and creativity from these people to rebuild their lives

I was also shocked to witness the many challenges refugees face, not only in their journey to safety but also in taking up their careers again in France. These barriers include having their qualifications recognised in the French labour market, especially when they arrive without documentation. They must also improve their language skills, grasp workplace values, overcome traumatic experiences, and often face racism, stigma or a lack of knowledge from employers. For refugee women, entry into the labour market is often even more difficult as a result of caregiving responsibilities, a lack of access to local childcare facilities, and gender-based discrimination compounded with racial discrimination. They are also mainly restricted to ‘feminised’ work sectors like childcare, hospitality, and entertainment.

Despite the numerous obstacles standing in their way, I witnessed an incredible drive, tremendous energy, and creativity from these people to rebuild their lives and make positive contributions to their new society. Although many didn’t even have a safe place to sleep at night, they would often offer to help the NGO using the little resources they had, whether that be through contributing their IT skills to improve our website, or by translating documents using their language skills. They were always very eager to learn and would leave after a workshop with motivation, energy, and huge smiles on their faces. Meeting refugees in ‘real’ life therefore helped me reverse the paradigm of pity and victimhood that I had internalised from media representations, into one of compassion, positive and productive engagement. I developed an immense appreciation for refugees’ agency, resilience and capacity to adapt.

One of Action Emploi Réfugiés’ awareness campaigns, inviting viewers to see refugees through a different lens and to discover the talents of these women and men who came to France looking for a fresh start.

This change in my mindset made me curious as to how other people form perceptions of refugees from media images. As a result, I conducted my final year university dissertation on this topic, interviewing 14 students from a range of subjects on their perceptions. My study’s results showed that even when participants overtly rejected negative media depictions, they spoke about refugees through the lens of victimhood and conceived them as distant from ‘us’, as Westerners.

It falls on us to reframe the way we view and respond to refugees, and to forge a new way forward

It is essential then that we realise the impact media representations can have on our perception of refugees. We must remember that refugees are not just a crowd of faceless strangers, as media images would have us believe. But that, instead, like all of us, they are complex and unique human beings, whose identities are made up of so much more than the experience of leaving their country. It falls on us to reframe the way we view and respond to refugees, and to forge a new way forward that deconstructs their popular stereotypical and reductive depictions to instead make way for refugees to tell their own stories. Especially now, as we experience a small taste of a lack of freedom for the first time as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, we must not let the dominant narrative surrounding refugees be of fear, racism or exclusion, but rather of empathy and solidarity.


This article was written by Juliette Howard and first published by TwentySomething News in June 2020. Juliette is a sociology with psychology graduate at the University of Surrey. She spent half of her university placement year working with refugees at Action Emploi Réfugiés in Paris and the other half at the University of Sydney, learning about Gender and Cultural Studies. She is currently completing her MA Migration Studies at the University of Sussex, while working on the Social Media team for Conversation Over Borders.

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