Europe’s refugee crisis: the media and public perceptions

More than one million migrants and refugees fleeing violence in their home countries crossed into Europe in 2015, in one of the worst humanitarian crises since World War II. Seeking a better and safer future for both themselves and their families, many have sought asylum in various EU countries with Germany and Hungary processing the largest number of applications.

Besides the huge administrative burden that accompanies such a monumental task, even those states who support resettlement still face backlash from a largely unsupportive public who are against the rehoming of refugees in their home countries. For some states, the rhetoric from national governments pushing anti-refugee sentiments has been blamed for what appears to be a largely xenophobic public.

However, even the states with governments in favour of resettling refugees are still facing staunch opposition from a public that does not want to see policy implemented that will allow an ‘influx’ of people seeking asylum. If political figures are in favour of opening their countries to refugees, what is influencing the public to think otherwise? Some argue that a media that continues to perpetuate myths is to blame.

Broadly speaking, academic work has proven that an effective relationship exists between the way the media portrays a migration story and how the public feels about the issue. However, it is difficult to quantify the impact that the political rhetoric and the way it’s reported has on public opinion regarding those seeking asylum. There are several other factors that also play a role in shaping how a person feels about issues such as these and it is difficult to separate and quantify the effect of information received via media channels. It is also still difficult to determine what drives the narrative; the media’s portrayal or public opinion, but the media is still obviously a persuasive source in shaping public perception.

Migrant vs. Refugee

One of the most common language errors is media outlets using ‘migrant’ and ‘refugee’ interchangeably, and the UNHCR argues that it does matter. Migrants choose to leave their home country, often in search of better prospects and are able to go home without fear, while refugees are fleeing conflict or persecution and it is too dangerous for them to return home.

This distinction is important because different laws apply depending on the situation, immigration policy is designed to process migrants while refugees are protected under both national and international law and countries have responsibilities towards them that migrants are not afforded. Misrepresenting refugees “takes attention away from the specific legal protections refugees require” and “can undermine public support for refugees”.

While a large number of those arriving in Europe have been refugees fleeing their war-torn countries, there are also a number of migrants choosing to relocate and it is important to make this distinction correctly when reporting related stories.

Language Matters

One of the authors of the Ethical Journalism Network’s ‘Moving Stories’ report, Zakeera Suffee, says that language matters because its misuse can incorrectly and unfairly portray groups of people in a negative light.

“Words such as illegal are so loaded, not in the least because they are a façade for a more racist undertone, but also because they criminalise and dehumanise people. When this is used day in day out, it reaches a level of normality, so people associate undocumented migrants with criminality,” Ms Suffee said.

“This reduces an issue to one point, rather than exploring and critiquing the layers that arise from all migration. This has a massive impact public perception, it automatically creates two categories ‘good migrants’ and ‘bad migrants’.”

She also sees the terms ‘refugee’ and ‘migrant’ as being manipulated by the media to convey a political message.

“One implies that there is a level of legitimacy in someone’s movement – a deserving subject, whereas the other is perceived to be associated with the act of movement. In both cases it is not for the media to define which is which. What this does is frames the subject on those who are travelling, and diverts from questions of responsibility of governments to provide adequate reception facilities, for example, so that claims can be assessed,” she said.

The ‘Refugee’ Label and Identity

Even when the distinction is correct, being labelled a ‘refugee’ can carry negative connotations due to the way that unfounded stereotypes are perpetuated by the media, politicians and the general public. This negative identity that is forced upon a person attempting to become a part of a society often leads to them feeling isolated and ostracized.

People expect newspapers to be a reliable source of information and as such, are likely to believe any claims made against refugees and asylum seekers. These negative attitudes consequently affect the identities imposed upon the subjects of those stories, influencing public opinion in such a way that they may be reluctant to interact with them and get to know these new members of their society themselves.

The Media’s Role

The media in the UK regularly fuels anti-refugee sentiment with the negative tone of their reporting on issues regarding forced migration. From increased crime to issues with healthcare, it is often suggested that refugees are responsible for these societal problems.

An analysis on a sample of headlines from British daily newspapers between 2002 and 2004 found that they repeatedly depicted asylum seekers and refugees in a negative light. Many of these were subsequently proven to be false accusations but this was not often reported adequately to readers.

In other parts of Europe, such as Italy and Germany, this problematic language has dominated recent media reports that depict refugees as illegal and as outsiders. This tendency to to sensationalise and only skim the surface of these stories provides readers with largely negative ideas about refugees that exacerbates issues related to segregation and perceived cultural differences.

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