The West’s Portrait of Refugees: Villains, Victims, Virile Monsters and Vicious Scroungers

Imagine you’re seven months pregnant, it’s your first child and you’re excited at the prospect of growing your family.

Image Source: UNHCR

Image Source: UNHCR

But your excitement surrenders to regret, fear and uneasiness.

You don’t want to bring a new life into your world. Because your world is replete with air strikes, violence and the constant threat that each day might be your last.

Image Source: Sputnik

Image Source: Sputnik

Your local hospital has been targeted by airstrikes more than once.The maternity ward has been closed for months.

Image Source: Human Rights Watch

Image Source: Human Rights Watch

There are shell casings in the walls of your house, you’ve lost family, friends, neighbours, acquaintances to the war.

You have no option but to leave. Your husband sets off ahead of you, in the hope that he will set up your new home in Europe before you arrive.

Now imagine that you embark on a long, treacherous journey, in constant risk of sexual abuse, exploitation and violence. You’re one of the the few (only 17% of refugees are in Europe) who makes it across to Europe but you go into labour during your journey. You rush to a Greek hospital, and give birth to a beautiful baby girl. Less than 24 hours later you leave the hospital to continue your journey to meet your husband in Germany. Or the UK. Or France.

Image source: Al Jazeera

Image source: Al Jazeera

Assuming you’ve survived the journey, you finally reach your destination only to be met with hostility. Your husband is seen as a villain, a virile predator and threat to European stability. He is also seen as weak for “leaving his country and not staying back to fight”.

People think you’re a victim, you have no agency, you’re a scrounger who came to Europe with your newborn child to live off European healthcare and education.

This is the reality that millions of refugees are faced with when they arrive in Europe. The media, European governments and society in general dehumanize refugees, refusing to paint an image of individual people who have lost almost everything to wars, violence, exploitation and abuse.

We need to address the way refugees are presented in the media. It simply isn’t acceptable that European media has stripped away the dignity, humanity and value of refugees. Refugees are seen as numbers, not people. And this has to change.  

What is a Refugee?

According to the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), “refugees are people fleeing conflict or persecution. They are defined and protected in international law, and must not be expelled or returned to situations where their life and freedom are at risk”.

There are 65.6 million people who have been forced out of their homes as a result of conflict or persecution. 22.5 million of them are refugees, and over half are under 18. This is the highest ever level of displacement on record.

How does the West Present Refugees?

Instead of welcoming refugees with open arms, and being compassionate towards the millions of people that have been forced to leave their lives behind, European rhetoric about refugees has been wholly negative. The arrival of refugees has led to a frenzy, enabling “a crisis mentality in which immigrants and refugees are portrayed as “enemies at the gate” who are attempting to invade Western nations”. Victoria M. Esses, Stelian Medianu and Andrea S. Lawson conducted an empirical study which revealed that media representations of refugees were statistically more negative than positive. For example, they found that 71% of the stories in Norwegian media about immigration or integration were problem-focused. Following the 2016 New Year’s Eve sexual assaults in Germany, refugee men have increasingly been an easy target for media outlets, meanwhile refugee women are either presented as victims or not presented at all.

The Esses paper asserts that:

“some people dehumanize other groups because they want to protect their privileged positions and keep other groups, such as refugees, in their place”.

As a result, people come out with comments like this:

The media is implicit in creating national perceptions of refugees that engender these vile comments. Think about this: How many times have you seen the media focus on the plight that refugees have gone through? How often do they use their power and platforms to induce empathy for refugees?

Now think about how often you hear the media talk about refugees in the context of job insecurity for ‘native Europeans’, or public security and the threat of terrorism. And it’s not just the media. The Home Office is guilty of perpetuating negative images, for example in 2015 Home Office minister James Brokenshire “defended plans to remove automatic benefits from families who do not win asylum as a way of signalling that the UK is not “a land of milk and honey”. For them, refugees and asylum seekers don’t deserve to be seen as real people, they don’t deserve to have a voice and they should be stripped of any humanity and be processed as numbers.

But Refugees DO have agency.

They shouldn’t be limited to a category or defined by a simple word. We need to make sure that refugees are given a voice in the western societies that either ignore or vilify them.

I came across the following initiatives that help to bring the positive stories to the limelight, and combat the negative images that Western media perpetuates. These are vital in a world that denies refugees their voice. We need to make sure that refugee stories are told by refugees themselves and that they are given a platform to share their experiences.

Letters to Europe - Female Refugees Telling Their Stories

Letters to Europe Refugee Writings
Letters to Europe – Female Refugees Telling Their Stories set out to combat stereotypes about refugees in the public discourse through the empowerment of voices of female refugees in Europe. To do this, the team collected stories from female refugees and on the basis of these stories, published the book ‘Letters to Europe – Refugee women write’ and created the theatre play ’refugee woman : )’
My Story Refugee Project
MyStory is a project funded by the European Commission Europe for Citizens Programme to assist journalists and organisations working with migrants and refugees in Europe to better use the media so to contribute to offer an alternative to mainstream media bias and for those organisations to pass on these skills to the migrants and refugees they are working with to tell their own stories.
Project Refugee Voices
Through careful interaction, the team of Refugee Voices will get to know the community, and then help them craft their stories into effective and material, i.e. art, photography and audio. The view of the project is that, as time goes by, the community will take ownership of the project and use it in a way most beneficial to them.
My Stories, My Terms’ is a writing and visualization workshop designed as an initiative to combine the word with a design process enabling a group of enthusiastic refugees, asylum seekers and immigrants to tell their stories on their own terms.
The Refugee Journalism Project
The Refugee Journalism Project supports refugee and exiled journalists to re-start their careers in the UK. These journalists arrive in the UK with an impressive range of skills – many have been editors, correspondents and producers in their own countries – but they face significant barriers when they attempt to continue their journalism.

Article by Chanju Mwanza