It was September 2, 2015 when the Syrian refugee crisis abruptly came to dominate the English-language media. On that day broadcast and print outlets led with the iconic image of Alan Kurdi, 3, lying lifeless on a Turkish beach after his family’s failed attempt to cross the Mediterranean Sea into Europe. The shocking picture prompted solemn pronouncements from Western leaders regarding the world’s responsibility to care for refugees, even as actual policy in most Western countries got worse.
In the United States, the increased attention to the refugee crisis prompted outright hostility. Thirty-one governors pledged not to accept Syrians in their states. The House of Representatives passed a bill suspending programs for admission of Syrian and Iraqi refugees with 47 Democrats and 242 Republicans voting in favor.
The general tenor of media coverage helps to explain the nasty political environment. A quantitative comparison by Abby Jones found that British and Canadian media were more inclined to compassionate, welcoming themes than US outlets, which generally portrayed Syrians as dangerous strangers to be kept out of the country.
And there are deeper problems with the media coverage that predate the “migration crisis” story of the fall of 2015. One is the preoccupation with the Mediterranean crossing, when the numbers clearly show that the Middle East is the center of Syrian displacement. More than half of the Syrian population (some 13.5 million people) is in immediate need of humanitarian assistance. The majority of these people are internally displaced inside Syria. Another 4.6 million Syrians fled the country into neighboring states, mainly Turkey (close to 3 million), Lebanon (more than 1 million), Jordan (more than 640,000) and Iraq (250,000). What the English-language media began calling the “migration crisis” refers to the 1,321,560 persons who requested asylum in European Union member states in 2015. Less than 400,000 of the asylum seekers are Syrian refugees.
In covering the crisis in the Middle East, English-language media has focused heavily on “traditional” settings such as the Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan. This fenced-off expanse of tents is easy for reporters to find. But only some 80,000 of the Syrian refugees in Jordan live there. The invisible refugees are those who escaped Zaatari to the outskirts of Amman and other Jordanian cities. Many of these Syrians have no UN documentation and thus no formal access to aid.
Inside Zaatari, as well, the process of knowledge production is rife with inequality and misrepresentation. There are too many privileged foreigners who come to the camp to take photos and make videos without taking the time to understand the diversity of the Syrians’ experiences. Some of these “camp tourists” are Syrians from the diaspora. When I was a volunteer in Zaatari with an activist organization, I saw upper-class Syrian visitors in fancy clothing and jewelry snapping pictures of themselves hugging and kissing refugee children without any effort at meaningful communication. They seemed mainly intent on returning to their circles at home with visual proof of their “charitable” work. There is a certain type of local male fixer who purports to know all about the lives of the poor refugees. When such fixers accompany foreign journalists with their own Orientalist preconceptions, and the subjects of the story are refugee women, the final product is one of the most dehumanizing representations of Syrian refugees to be found.
Many Syrian refugees and activists want their stories be widely shared, but with considerably more humility and respect for the refugees’ actual interest than the “camp tourists” display. Properly handled, the refugees’ tales of suffering can offer them a way to heal.
Syrian refugees are largely represented as desperately poor people risking their lives to find a new home in the West. But a closer look at who really provides assistance to Syrian refugees in neighboring countries tells another story of Syrian resistance. In 2015, the UN regional refugee response plan for Syria had a budget of $1.3 billion, of which it raised only 35 percent. Syrian activist humanitarian organizations were crucial in filling the gap. Many of the men and women who run these organizations acquired networking and community service skills by participating in the Syrian uprising. These organizations connect individual donors—some drawn from previous generations of Palestinian, Iraqi and Syrian refugees who have become wealthy in exile—with the most needy of today’s refugees. Such networks depend on forging new kinship ties of care that are vital for resisting war’s devastation and rising anti-refugee sentiments as well as maintaining the physical and emotional wellbeing of the diasporic Syrian community. Highlighting such aspects of the Syrian refugee crisis demonstrates not only the agency of refugees but also the resources within the community.
Genuine solidarity with Syrian refugees means addressing the crisis as not just a humanitarian emergency but also the result of a political and economic conflict fueled by regional and international powers. The Syrian conflict and refugee crisis, further, are linked to other regional crises, such as those in Iraq and Yemen. The UN puts the civilian casualty toll of the Saudi-led coalition airstrikes in Yemen at some 2,800 dead and 5,300 injured. More than 2.4 million Yemenis are internally displaced and more than 80 percent of the population requires some kind of humanitarian assistance. Nevertheless, weapon sales from Western countries to Saudi Arabia and its allies were estimated at $18 billion in 2015. Such facts have motivated an international movement to stop these arms transfers. In March, a class-action suit was filed in Canada to halt a $15 billion sale of light-armored vehicles to Saudi Arabia. Such tactics are valuable tools for reducing the incidence of war—and thus the flight of refugees and internally displaced people—in the Middle East in the long run.
There is a noticeable tendency in Western media to foreground images of those Syrian children who are fair-haired and blue-eyed. But such manipulations cannot achieve justice for Syrian refugees in the face of increasing racism and Islamophobia. The responsibility of English-language media, in particular in the US, toward Syrian refugees is to humanize all refugees, wherever they are from, and to make relief efforts a top priority in the West while exposing the politics and economics behind the refugees’ plight.