The challenges
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The challenges


Yazidi women participate in a sewing class in a Women Friendly Space in a camp for internally displaced persons at Dawodiya in Iraq’s Kurdistan region. More than 600 Yazidi families living in the camp escaped from the Sinjar region during violent attacks  by the Islamic State group. The class is sponsored by the Lutheran World Federation, a member of the ACT Alliance, which provides water, sanitation, garbage collection, and psycho-social support for the families in the camp. Photo: Paul Jeffrey/ACT Alliance



Words have meaning 


The language that media use to talk about migration can make all the difference. It has a strong influence in how the audience understands, perceives and reacts to a topic. Words frame understanding of a situationAs a result, using the appropriate and accurate terminology in reporting is so important.  


The lack of resources in the media, and the lack of specialised knowledge may explain why often there is confusion in the terms used to refer to migrants, refugees, asylum seekers, etc.  


No human being is illegal 


The term illegal’ deserves a note. In many countries, migrants are referred to as illegal’term with almost universal pejorative connotation. It frames people as criminals, with the implication that they should not be where they are.  


The term should never be used to refer to a human being. It is discriminatory and denies fellow human beings of their humanity. There is no such a concept as an illegal human being.  


People can find themselves in an irregular situation in a country (for example, when they lack a residence document), but they can never be illegal.  Media have a special responsibility in this regard, and should never use this term.  


The Words Matter initiative by the Platform for Undocumented Migrants, provides some useful alternatives. You will find leaflets with more appropriate, non-discriminatory words in several languages.  

Going beyond the label  


Even when media uses the correct terminology, refugee or migrant are often just labels attached to people, and by which it is assumed these people are known and understood.  


In the 2017 Refugees Reporting study, the results showed that almost half (43%) of the sample analysed did not specify an occupation for refugees and migrants identified in the stories, while over a quarter (27%) only identified them as refugees or ‘migrants’ – as if that connotation was an occupation. This is interesting to compare with people in the sample who were not identified as refugees or migrants: in only 12% of the cases, their occupations were not stated. 


Every refugee, every migrant is, first and foremost, a human being. Going beyond the label, showing the person underneath, goes a long way in creating connections among different people and in creating a common understanding of humanity.  


Language is a key issue in the representation of refugees and migrants in the news. It can create a climate of acceptance and understanding, or one of fear and hate. “Everyone with an interest in this issue, not only journalists, has a responsibility to avoid playing on people’s fears and uncertainties, to eliminate the language of confrontation and hostility and to encourage national dialogues on how to meet the challenges of migration, argues this report 

Power imbalances  


Even when journalism is accurate, ethical and neutral, it is important to recognise that there is a power imbalance between the journalist and people in the newsThat is especially the case when media report about people who may be experiencing a situation of vulnerability.  


This is something worth considering. Journalists have the power to influence opinions, to bring light and awareness to a specific situation, but they can also worsen someone’s conditions, or jeopardise their well-being, if they are not careful.  


The other aspect where the power imbalance is visible relates to access. It may not be difficult for journalists to get access to a refugee camp, to find refugees who are willing to talk, but how about the other way? How easy, or difficult, is it for refugees and migrants themselves to reach out to the media to have their story told? 


During the Refugees Reporting project, representatives of refugees and migrant groups were very clear about the limitations of their engagements. While media would occasionally reach out to them to ask for a quote or comment, it was much harder for them to get the attention of the media, to have a specific story or an event covered, for example.  


There may also be a lack of expertise on the part of refugees and migrants to reach out to and talk to media. There may be a lack of understanding of the needs of media. What are the stories that work best? Which angle should I pitch? Who can I reach out to? These are all valid questions, and their answers may not be so easy to come by.