Media and social media responsibilities in the integration of refugees

What impact do news and social media content have on our perception of refugees and their integration into a new host country? We take a look at two recent research papers on this issue.

Picture by: @rawpixel on Unsplash

By Carolina Are

Rethinking media responsibility in the refugee ‘crisis’: a visual typology of European News by Lilie Chouliaraki and Tijana Stolic. Published in Media, Culture & Society 2017.

In this paper, Chouliaraki and Stolic look at news imagery from the UK, Italy, Ireland, Greece and Hungary that portray the 2015 Syrian refugee crisis. The authors use what they define as a conceptually driven semiotic analysis to establish how media content suggests different types of responsibilities to refugees. The paper identifies and explains five types of responsibilities captured within the images:

  1. Visibility as biological life: The refugees are depicted as a “mass of unfortunates” in camps or on fragile dinghies, reducing their representation to a body, an “anthropological minimum.” This representation sees the refugee crisis as a humanitarian emergency, but it is limited to a simple “checking up” of current affairs, a raising of awareness that doesn’t expect its viewers to do anything about it.
  2. Visibility as empathy: In opposition to the previous type of images, pictures portray individuals as couples, or a crying child, promoting a more humanised version of refugees that encourages compassion while also reminding us of the refugees’ otherness. This is the type of images often used in humanitarian aid scenarios.
  3. Visibility as threat: Images like masses of refugees walking through motorways on the Balkan routes, or squeezed in rescue boats; or “threatening young males” in mobs. This type of images awakens a sense of threat in population, justifying the immediate closing of borders over care for victims of war.
  4. Visibility as hospitality: This series of images involves the portrayal of pro-refugee protests in Europe. However, although protesters aim to recognise refugees as humans, their aims are undermined by the fact that refugees are politically voiceless.
  5. Visibility as self-reflexivity: Or the use of celebrity campaigners and social media to raise awareness about refugees. Although this portrayal aims at humanising refugees and expressing compassion towards their plight, they often result in over-shadowing or fictionalising people in need against celebrities’ personas or social media narratives.

Following from this analysis, Chouliaraki and Stolic argue that media images of refugees need a dramatic shift from the “objectification” of the populations they cover in order to portray their own agency.

Refugee integration and social media: a local and experiential perspective by Amanda Alencar, Information, Communication & Society, 2017

Amanda Alencar’s research examines the potential of social networking sites to facilitate refugee integration. After speaking to a range of refugees living in the Netherlands, the paper examines the role that social networks are playing in the integration process – building language skills, facilitating job searches, education, cultural belonging and so on.

Using qualitative interviews, Alencar found that refugees in the Netherlands prefer to use social networks over any other Internet applications. Just like people in their host countries, they used Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Instagram, WhatsApp, YouTube, Viber and Google. Additionally, Syrian refugees seemed particularly keen on Line, an app offering similar services as Skype.

This research found refugees used social media for four different reasons. They were:

  1. Means and Markers: Refugees said they used their acquaintances on social network to help make sense of job search and housing sites, considering they were often written in fluent language from the host countries. Social media platforms are also becoming a way to find out about practical issues within the host countries.
  2. Social connections: As can be expected, social networks are often also used to make new friends in host countries and to keep in touch with loved ones in refugees’ home country. Some of them referred to Facebook groups bringing refugees and Dutch people together to organise activities and promote inter-cultural contact.
  3. Facilitators: In the Netherlands, refugees are required to find integration courses and take language tests independently just like other migrants. Social networks then become a key tool to promote integration and to improve one’s language. In this instance however, interviews showed social media platforms could indeed promote integration, but that they could also reinforce stereotypes about refugees and negative impressions of Islam.
  4. Foundations: Social networks were also used as a source of information about migration procedures, laws and other legal issues, such as taxes.

Alencar’s paper recommends a collaborative effort between the host countries and the refugees  to facilitate integration.

Towards Integration

Both papers stress the importance traditional and digital media have in the portrayal of refugees, often influencing public opinion on their agency and power within their host country. Yet, they also showcase the problems with such visibility, often resulting in ‘othering’ refugees instead of making host countries’ populations aware of their plight in ways that facilitate integration. The authors suggest therefore that a depiction that doesn’t result in refugee objectification, and joint efforts on both the refugees and host countries’ part, can promote better integration of these populations in the new host countries.